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Commentaries and editorials

Major NW Power Outage Unlikely;
But System Not Foolproof

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 12, 2003

A major electricity blackout like the one that hit the East Coast and parts of the Midwest on Aug. 14 is unlikely in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to actions that were taken in response to a similar blackout that hit much of the West Coast in August 1996.

But it's best to "never say never," the director of the Northwest Power Pool told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council this week in Spokane.

The Council invited Jerry Rust, who directs the Portland-based association of 16 electricity transmission control areas, to discuss the causes of the Aug. 14 blackout and also to assess the probability of a similar outage in the Northwest.

Rust said the West Coast has an important advantage over the East Coast: electric utilities and other transmission providers addressed system maintenance and capacity issues following the August 10, 1996, blackout. That outage began in Oregon and cascaded throughout the West, cutting power to 7.5 million customers, mainly in California, for periods ranging from a few minutes to nine hours.

"It took two months to fully understand what caused that outage; it will take time to determine what happened on the East Coast," Rust said.

In response to the 1996 outage, Northwest utilities took a number of actions, including:

  1. Created an entity, the Northwest Security Coordinator, with authority to oversee transmission lines;
  2. Agreed on system operating conditions that have been studied and simulated so that problems can be diagnosed and fixed quickly;
  3. Established a voluntary, contractual reliability management system for transmission operations with fines and/or sanctions for violations;
  4. Established a policy and related operations to respond to two major outages rather than one, as was the case before the 1996 outage; and
  5. Agreed on an electricity contingency reserve that is available if voltage drops suddenly.
"Vigilance is the key," Council Chair Judi Danielson of Idaho said. "Here in the Northwest we have taken actions that will reduce the probability of a major outage. But we also understand that quick and unexpected growth in the economy could lead to higher demand for electricity, and so we need to be sure we continue to have adequate supplies and adequate transmission capacity."

The challenge for the future is to ensure new generators and transmission capacity are added to the regional system even when deregulated power prices are low enough to discourage investments in construction, Danielson said.

"This is an important issue we are tackling as we revise our Northwest Power Plan," she said. The Council plans to complete the power plan revision by next spring.

The Council is an agency of the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and is directed by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to assure the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply while protecting, mitigating and enhancing fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by hydropower dams.

Mike O'Bryant
Major NW Power Outage Unlikely; But System Not Foolproof
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 12, 2003

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