Blackout wakes up administration
Restoration is as important as preservation
By Paulo Ribeiro

Paulo Ribeiro
In 2003, Dr. Ribeiro was elected Fellow of the IEEE as a consequence of his work in transmission grids, including superconducting magnetic energy storage systems (one of the technologies which can minimize power blackouts).

This summer’s east coast blackout — which affected 50 million people across parts of the United States and Canada — was an important wake-up call for many people, including local, state and national politicians. But the unfortunate reality is that, despite the rhetoric bound to come out of Washington, D.C., Lansing, Mich., and other places in the coming months, complete immunity from blackouts is not possible to achieve. A power systems grid is a widespread, interconnected system and is as strong as its weakest link and/or its operation strategies during transient conditions.

In fact, soon after our blackout, London, England, suffered its own power loss, again with significant consequences. This fall, first a power loss affected five million people in Denmark and Sweden, countries that historically have never dealt with such occurrences, and then the entire country of Italy suffered a massive power failure. The BBC report on the incident said simply: “Energy officials have warned of serious deficiencies in Italy’s electricity system, following Sunday’s massive power cut that left almost the whole country in darkness.”

What’s happening here?

The simple answer is that countries such as the United States, England, Sweden and Denmark are finally experiencing what much of the rest of the world experiences on a regular basis.

During this summer’s North American blackout, I was in my native Brazil, where blackouts are a more common occurrence. Is this because Brazil is “backward” and incapable of producing a reliable power grid? Not at all. It’s because electricity, despite its predictability (flip a switch and a light comes on) is a very complex engineering system to control.

More Online
The Blackout of 2003
The Power Systems Engineering Research Center's web site provides information on the sequence of events, government investigations, media stories from around the U.S. and other responses to the blackout

U.S. Department of Energy
The Interim Report on the 2003 blackout (released Nov. 19) and commentary by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham

Ribeiro Named IEEE Fellow
In fall 2002, Dr. Ribeiro was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Solar Cell Research
A $9,000 grant from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory allowed Ribeiro and two Calvin students to study new solar cell technology in summer 2003

Solar Energy for Interpretive Center
The new Bunker Interpretive Center will demonstrate a solar energy system

Engineering Senior Design Projects (2002-2003)
Calvin seniors design car sun shields, robotic drills and a women's hospital in Nigeria

The North American electrical grid is possibly the largest machine man ever built. Remember that there are thousands of miles of transmission lines and generators, all interconnected mostly via an alternating current system. The State of Texas is an exception, decoupled from other AC systems via AC/DC/AC converters, a very expensive solution. But the bottom line is that the largest machine we’ve ever built will break down from time to time. The solution is twofold: 1) make the breakdowns less frequent and 2) make them less widespread. We could add a third element — figure out how to restore power more quickly, but more on that later.

The good news is that work on the first point — making the breakdowns less frequent — has been taking place for some time now and progress is being made. I have participated in several transient stability studies and advanced technologies developments and applications in the U.S. and Brazil and have firsthand experience on how these new, integrated technologies can help transmission grids. We have also observed that the reliability of the system, however, depends on a combination of factors, which vary from system topologies, flexible generation/transmission capacity, and sequence of events determined by system protection schemes. I remember one blackout in Brazil, affecting one-third of the country, which was caused by a toad that short-circuited a major high-voltage transformer by jumping from one phase to the other. One of the problems with implementing safeguards, however, is deregulation of the electric power utility industry. Deregulation has caused stagnation on transmission investment. This stagnation has for some time now created concern among those working with transmission systems. I believe that we have taken electricity for granted for too long. Now we are starting to realize that the health of our power grid is essential to the security of our nation. I hope we are realizing that electricity is not just a commodity but also a service. In fact, I think the economic model proposed by deregulation may need to be revisited. The issue, however, is very complex and has many technical, economic and political ramifications.

But just increasing the capacity of the transmission grid does not necessarily enhance the security of the power system and reduce the probability of blackouts. This is because the level of security of a system is a function of the rules that govern its operation. If the transmission capacity is expanded without any adjustment in these rules, little will have been gained from a security point of view. This does not mean that there are no good arguments for upgrading the transmission grid. These investments, however, may benefit primarily the producers and consumers whose ability to obtain better prices in the electricity markets is limited by congestion in the transmission network. The fundamental principle, however, is that the system should always be operated in such a way that no credible contingency could trigger cascading outages or another form of instability.

Finally, one last challenge (as though there aren’t enough already) is restoring power. Ironically, during the August blackout in the U.S., I was at a power systems conference in Brazil. There the number one question people asked me was why it took so long to recover the system. Brazil is able to restore its system much faster than we did in August. This, as anyone who has suffered an outage knows, is not an inconsequential thing. Indeed, people usually are much more tolerant of outages if they know restoration will come quickly. Electric power is the lifeblood of the economy and needs to be reliable and/or easily restored.

Indeed, my opinion is that we need to concentrate as much on restoration as we do on prevention. I believe that it is always possible to produce a sequence of events that would minimize, but not avoid, the consequences of a blackout. Allow me to be plainer: there is no foolproof system. We do need to secure the system against credible contingencies, but securing the system against all possible contingencies is clearly impossible. I believe that new integrated technologies (distributed generation, advanced transmission power electronic controllers, intelligent monitoring and protection), if properly implemented and administered, will help to maintain the high reliability (by preventing blackouts and quickly recovering) of the U.S. transmission grid.