2003: Northeast Blackout 173
AN ENGINEERING PERSPECTIVE
In 1996 two large-scale power outages occurred in July and August in
the Pacific Northwest. Unknowingly, on August 10 the operators config-
ured their system in a condition in which outage of the Keeler-Allston line
led to cascading outages. During both the July and August failures, protec-
tion of generator field current excitation equipment failed at the McNary
hydro plant. Based on a subsequent investigation by the Western System
Coordinating Council, power engineers recommended substantial system
changes to improve voltage support stability, to minimize power oscillation
damping, and to improve simulation modeling (WSCC, 1996; Taylor, 1999).
Later, after widespread power outages in the summer of 1999, power
engineers in a Department of Energy outage study team investigated root
causes.Although only local causes were detailed in their report, it was gen-
erally accepted by the power industry at this time that the amount of gen-
erating capacity available during peak demand was shrinking throughout
the country. Further, the transmission system was being subjected to flows
in magnitudes and directions that had not been studied or for which there
was minimal operating experience. Maintenance of the distribution infra-
structure had suffered in recent years because utilities had been pressed
for time and money. Finally, NERC at this time asked for legislative
authority to make compliance with its rule-making mandatory, rather than
voluntary (Sweet, 2000).
Even when the much-discounted National Energy Policy report was
issued in 2001 by Vice-President Dick Cheney, it admitted the lack of
capacity in the grid to satisfy demand. However, the report urged that new
transmission lines be built, rather than that the existing grid become more
efficient (Sweet, 2001). Based on these and other reports, when the
Northeast blackout occurred on August 14, 2003, power engineers and
IEEE had been sounding the alarm on potential grid failures for almost a
decade (Background to the blackout, 2003).
REFERENCES
Background to the blackout: a compendium of IEEE Spectrum material, IEEE Spectrum Web
Special Report, August 21, 2003. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/special/aug03/
comp.html.
Barron, J., The blackout of 2003: The overview; power surge blacks out Northeast, hitting cities
in 8 states and Canada; midday shutdowns disrupt millions. NY Times,A1, August 15, 2003.
Linzer, D., Power blackout is latest of first energy problems. Wash Times, B1, August 17, 2003.
McClure, G. F., Electric power transmission reliability not keeping up with conservation
efforts, IEEE Today’s Engineer, Feb, 2005.
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