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In 2003, an overheated power line near Cleveland, Ohio sagged into a tree and shorted out. It started a cascade of power line failures across the Midwest, Northeast and parts of Canada, and causing the worst blackout in U.S. history. Since then, utilities and grid operators have used new technology and procedures to prevent another major blackout – but can they compete with an aging grid and estimated $1 trillion in required new investment? energyNOW! anchor Thalia Assuras looked at cutting-edge technology that can prevent blackouts before they occur, talked to federal officials about government efforts to create a safer and smarter grid, and went inside the high-tech nerve center of the country’s largest grid operator to see how we’re guarding the grid.

Energy Efficiency

Guarding the Grid

In 2003, an overheated power line near Cleveland, Ohio sagged into a tree and shorted out. It started a cascade of power line failures across the Midwest, Northeast and parts of Canada, and causing the worst blackout in U.S. history. Since then, utilities and grid operators have used new technology and procedures to prevent another major blackout – but can they compete with an aging grid and estimated $1 trillion in required new investment?

energyNOW! anchor Thalia Assuras looked at cutting-edge technology that can prevent blackouts before they occur, talked to federal officials about government efforts to create a safer and smarter grid, and went inside the high-tech nerve center of the country’s largest grid operator to see how we’re guarding the grid.

 
In 2003, an overheated power line near Cleveland, Ohio sagged into a tree and shorted out. It started a cascade of power line failures across the Midwest, Northeast and parts of Canada, and caused the worst blackout in U.S. history. Since then, utilities and grid operators have used new technology and procedures to prevent another major blackout — but can they compete with an aging grid and estimated $1 trillion in required new investment?

A look inside the PJM Interconnection grid control room

energyNOW! anchor Thalia Assuras looked at cutting-edge technology that can prevent blackouts before they occur, talked to federal officials about government efforts to create a safer and smarter grid, and went inside the high-tech nerve center of the country’s largest grid operator to see how we’re guarding the grid. To watch the full segment, click the video below:

The North American electricity grid, made up of four distinct grids, or interconnections, powers every aspect of life in the U.S. The web of 450,000 miles of transmission lines carries electricity from more than 6,000 power plants to 140 million customers. “It underpins our economy,” said Massoud Amin, a University of Minnesota engineering professor and power grid expert. “Our quality of life, our society – everything we depend on.”

But the grid was predominantly built between 1950 and 1980, and technology’s spread into homes and businesses has exponentially increased power demand across the country. Major outages have been avoided, but smaller power outages have doubled over the past decade, costing the economy about $180 billion a year. So, faced with surging demand, aging equipment and a lack of new transmission, federal officials and grid operators are working to make the grid smarter and more efficient.

Smart grid technology like smart meters can empower customers to reduce energy demand and can help grid operators and utilities better manage the flow of electrons. “Ultimately, we are (building) a smart grid at the distribution level for the individual consumer where that consumer can know more about their own energy use and control their costs, and then know it better at the bulk power system level,” said Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

One of the newest grid innovations being developed, the Phasor Measurement Unit, provides real-time grid data faster than ever before. “It’s taking data (from the grid) and transmitting that data back (to grid operators) a hundred times a second, so the operator can see what’s happening,” said Tom Nelson of the National Institute of Standards & Technology. “It’s like an MRI for the electric systems.”

High-tech solutions may help grid operators keep outages from spreading, but utilities have also focused on keeping transmission lines in service to prevent blackouts from starting. “We’re beginning to put sensors in place to do a better job monitoring, we’ve done so much better in training the operator,” said Clark Gellings of the Electric Power Research Institute. “We’ve done so much better in understanding how to keep the right of way clean under those lines, trim those trees, monitor the trimming.”

But even with these improvements and innovations, grid experts are circumspect about the possibility of a 2003 blackout happening again. “We hope it couldn’t happen again,” said Wellinghoff. “Yes, it could happen again,” said Gelling.

 
 
 
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Written By

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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