(August 22, 2003) The electricity crisis, that hit the Northeast of the U.S. on Thursday 14 August, has shown one of the negative consequences of electricity market deregulation. Less attractive investments (i.e. no short term profits) in the electricity grid had made it very vulnerable to failures such as happened on 14 August. About 50 million people in eight U.S. states and Canada were affected. Due to the outage 9 NPPs in the U.S. and 13 NPPs in Canada and more than 10 conventional power stations were shut down.
(591.5532) WISE Amsterdam - The blackout appears to have started in three transmission lines near Cleveland (Ohio). At 3.06 p.m. a trip at one transmission line caused extra power coursing at another line, which got overheated and tripped as well. Another line got disconnected in a switching station due to overload. As a consequence of overloads, several lines and switching stations started to trip and disconnect. Power stations disconnected themselves automatically from the grid to protect themselves from damage.
The Davis-Besse NPP was the first nuclear plant to be hit by the failure. Although it is out of operation, its power supply stopped at 4.11 p.m. Until 4.25 p.m. nine other reactors shut down automatically after losing power supply: Indian Point-2/3 (NY), Perry (OH), Fermi (MI), Ginna (NY), FitzPatrick (NY), Oyster Creek (NJ) and Nine Mile Point-1/2 (NY) (1).
In Canada, 13 NPPs shut down after the blackout. Pickering "B"-5/8, Bruce "B"-5/8 and Darlington-1/4 were in full operation. Pickering "A"-4 was at 15% power when it was shut down after the blackout. This unit was out of operation since 1997 (due to safety concerns) but now in the process of restarting (2).
Due to the crisis, computers stopped working, people got stuck in subways, trains could not drive, airports were closed as passenger's security checks could not be carried out, people had to sleep on the street as they were not able to get home, etc. An official state of emergency was declared in New York city and the Canada province of Ontario. Although some thought that sabotage by terrorists might have caused the failure, this possible cause appears to be not realistic. New York city was also hit by outages in 1965 and 1977. In 1965, 30 million people in New York and New England had been affected. In 1977, New York had no electricity for several hours (3).
Within 15 minutes, nine nuclear reactors in the U.S. were shut down automatically when power supply was disrupted. They had to rely on emergency backup diesel generators to supply the necessary power for cooling the reactor. According to Public Citizens' Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program (CMEP), sudden reliance on backup diesel generators is less than reassuring as there have been 15 instances in the past 12 months in which emergency generators either malfuntioned or failed to operate. At the Fermi reactor, all four of its backup generators were found to be inoperable on 1 February. Without emergency backup cooling, the reactor core could melt between two and eight hours.
If the current blackout would have caused a meltdown due to failing backup generators, it will have been likely that emergency sirens to alert proper officials and the public would not have operated due to the lack of power. Indeed, the Indian Point and Ginna NPPs informed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that some of their emergency sirens would have rendered impotent due to the blackout. Leaving the public in a tragic state of ignorance in he event of a meltdown (4).
The blackout possibly also caused damage to some of the nine affected NPPs in the U.S. As of 18 August, five of the NPPs had been restarted and operating and a sixth was in the process of restart. Restart of Indian Point-3 was delayed as repairs were needed on electrical cables in the control rod mechanism. Owner Entergy said that they were not certain whether the grid failure had caused the damage. Perry NPP could not restart until repairs are made on a reactor core isolation system, which was already planned but now necessary since the shut down. Fermi-2 was back to 24% power at 20 August, after damage was repaired at turbine equipment, pumps and circuit boards. Fermi owner Detroit Edison said that the components got damaged when they were overheated in the sudden power loss (5).
In the U.S., Senate Republicans have called for greater reliance on nuclear energy and increase of production capacity. Although the problem was mainly caused by a transmission problem, not a capacity problem, Republicans are using the current crisis to promote nuclear energy. They already rejected addressing the core issue - power grid and rules - in a separate legislation and rather use the crisis as "proof" that the U.S. needs a comprehensive Energy Bill, including large investments in nuclear (see elsewhere in this issue on Energy Bill developments) (6).
Only four of the Canadian reactors, three at Bruce "B" and one at Darlington, were able to restart immediately after the blackout. As of 21 August, the other eight were also expected to operate at full power. The failure to restart the eight reactors immediately after the blackout contributed to a power crisis in the Ontario province that shut down much of the industrial production (7).
Ontario is heavily dependent on nuclear energy. The three Ontario Power Generation (OPG) nuclear stations produce about 45% of the province's electricity (8).
Many see the current crisis as a negative consequence of the deregulation on the electricity market. According to Public Citizens' Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, "there was plenty of power available at the time of the blackout, but something or someone overloaded the wires to move it to markets". Deregulation even promotes such overloads because of the principles of selling as much as possible (to make profits). Necessary repairs or additions to the transmission system are however discouraged as these measures diminish profits (9).
According to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, the U.S. would be "a superpower with a network of a Third World country". The Electricity Power and Research Institute (EPRI) concluded that electricity consumption has increased with 30% in the last 10 years, but the capacity of the grid in the same time only increased with 15% (10).
Even the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) concluded in 2002 in the National Transmission Grid Study that the "outdated transmission system was not designed to support today's regional, competitive electricity markets. Investments in the transmission system has not kept pace with the growth in generation and the increasing demand for electricity. Transmission bottlenecks reliability and cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars each year."
The present grid was built up over the last 100 years, mainly intended for local electricity distribution. Small interconnections between utilities existed, but were created to share excess generation. Over the past 10 years, competition into wholesale electricity markets has been introduced and as a result the grid has become to function as a kind of interstate highway system for wholesale electricity commerce. According to DOE, the grid has now become congested and needs urgent modernization.
The DOE study group recommended the establishment of Regional Transmission Organizations being responsible for grid reliability and federal legislation to make reliability standards mandatory (11).
The system of centralized electricity production in large power plants makes it vulnerable to failures such as happened on 14 August. Sierra Club of Canada thinks that nuclear energy has made the system prone to large blackouts: "Any electricity grid fed by large centralized nuclear and coal plants will always be vulnerable to large-scale blackouts. Long shutdown and restart times for nuclear plants have made the crisis much worse, and will be the direct cause of any rolling blackouts that take place".
According to the Sierra Club, increased energy efficiency and decentralized green energy sources can make the system more resilient, flexible and sustainable. But the exorbitant costs for nuclear rehabilitation have drained investments from the upkeep of the grid and forestalled green electricity (12).
Calling the blackout a "wake-up call to decision makers", the U.S. Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) said that the U.S. should look to distributed, diverse and clean technologies to prevent problems in the future. RMI, described as a leading energy think tank, considers the present system of centralized electricity production as vulnerable to cascading series of errors. Already in the 1982 book Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for national Security, RMI founders described the electrical grid as a disaster waiting to happen with catastrophic consequences. The current grid consists of relatively few and large units of generation and transmission interconnected rather sparsely with heavy dependence on a few critical nodes, many of which are nearly overload.
Although traditional responses often plea for more and larger power plants and extensive expansions of the power grid, RMI's response is a more distributed generation architecture: placing smaller, modular, diverse, and redundant electrical devices spread across the grid close to the load they serve. Sources as fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP), solar panels and micro-turbines can provide power at lower cost and greater reliability that the centralized power system (with large nuclear plants) (13).
In the 2002 publication Small is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size, RMI describes the potentials of a diverse and small energy system (14).
The 2002 National Transmission Grid Study of DOE draw a similar conclusion to distributed production: siting generation closer to areas where electricity is needed, and reducing electricity use through targeted energy efficiency and distributed generation (15).
DOE has announced an investigation into the causes and solutions of the blackout. Public Citizens' Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program doubts the independence of such an investigation team. The Bush Administration has close ties to the energy industry and Public Citizen is afraid that DOE will protect the very utilities that ought to be investigated. One of the examples mentioned: Ohio utility FirstEnergy, where the blackout possibly started, was a large financial contributor to Bush's re-election campaign in 2000.
Public Citizen proposes to establish an independent task force, including public utility commissioners from effected states, consumer organizations, independent utility experts and representatives of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (16).
(1) StarNewsOnline, 16 August 2003
(2) Sierra Club of Canada backgrounder, 14 August 2003
(3) NOS nieuws (NL), 15 August 2003
(4) CMEP press release, 15 August 2003
(5) Nucleonics Week, 21 August 2003
(6) Climate Action Network Europe email list, 19 August 2003
(7) Nucleonics Week, 21 August 2003
(8) Sierra Club of Canada press release, 19 August 2003
(9) CMEP press release, 15 August 2003
(10) NOS nieuws (NL), 15 August 2003
(11) Reports at: tis.eh.doe.gov/ntgs/reports.html
(12) Sierra Club of Canada press release, 19 August 2003
(13) Rocky Mountain Institute press release, 14 August 2003
(15) Reports at: tis.eh.doe.gov/ntgs/reports.html
(16) CMEP press release, 20 August 2003
Contact: WISE Amsterdam