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Blackouts Unlikely Here, Utilities say;
Others Not So Sure

by Jonathan Martin and Craig Welch
Seattle Times - August 15, 2003

As word of the East Coast blackout hit Seattle City Light yesterday, Mike Sinowitz gulped. Terrorism, he thought.

Within minutes, Seattle City Light's power manager dispatched technicians to run the utility's far-flung inventory of dams manually should catastrophe strike City Light's mainframe computer.

And he got help closer to home: extra police patrols around major King County substations, and extra utility crews to patch holes in the power grid. By late yesterday, the extra precautions seemed unnecessary.

The Western power grid, stretching from British Columbia to Los Angeles, and from Seattle to Montana, is independent of the East Coast grid, and here everything functioned normally, with negligible impacts even at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

But even as the power was slowly coming back on in several East Coast states last night, experts offered differing opinions on the Pacific Northwest's vulnerability to widespread blackouts.

City Light officials say Seattle is well insulated because of a dependable network of hydroelectric dams and a backup system that worked well during blackouts in the 1990s.

The Bonneville Power Administration said vast internal redundancies, an array of relatively independent utilities, and a more stable and tightly controlled power grid mean a problem in Tacoma is unlikely to spread to Portland or Seattle.

But Snohomish County Public Utility District officials recalled the energy crisis in late 2000, when cold weather and a dearth of supply made blackouts a real possibility across the region, and even BPA acknowledged that "high temperatures, high demand and equipment failure" are a recipe for trouble anywhere.

"Yes, it could happen here," said Anjan Bose, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture at Washington State University. "The grid is designed to meet very stringent reliability standards even on the hottest days. But there are always events you can't foresee or prepare for."

Though no cause had been determined last night, Sinowitz believes the East Coast blackouts happened because of a double failure a crashed power plant or downed major transmission line coupled with a failure of a backup system of relay boxes.

Seattle City Light gets much of its power from five hydroelectric plants on the Skagit, Pend Oreille and Cedar rivers that can provide nearly 1,900 megawatts of power. Those generating plants can be powered up or down more quickly than the nuclear, coal or oil plants used in the East, giving City Light flexibility to immediately respond to the failure of one plant, said Sinowitz. "We can step up (a power plant) from zero to a full load in minutes," he said.

And City Light's backup system little black relay boxes the size of three packs of cigarettes in each substation worked well the one time it was needed, he said. In 1994, the West Coast's transmission backbone was temporarily snapped, cutting power that flowed north from California, said Sinowitz.

Suddenly deprived of power, City Light was headed toward a total collapse. But the relay boxes cut power to a quarter of the utility's customers and averted a wholesale blackout. "The only time in 15 years it was needed, it acted and it worked," said Sinowitz.

Officials at BPA were so confident of their monitoring systems that after first hearing about the East Coast blackouts, there was little to do but turn on CNN.

"It's constantly monitored already, both electronically and with humans," said BPA spokesman Bill Murlin. "We have computers and gauges and electronic systems that we're constantly watching, and constant helicopter patrols of our 15,000 miles of transmission lines."

The same was true with Tacoma Public Utilities, where, like other utilities, the alert level has been high since Sept. 11, 2001. "Mostly, we were just waiting for an explanation" of yesterday's outage, said spokeswoman Sue Veseth.

Still, outages in the West have happened.

In August 1996, 4 million customers in nine Western states were without power during one of the hottest days of the summer. The cause: A transmission line in Montana sagged when it was overloaded with electricity and short-circuited itself, Bose said. When the transmission line was switched out, the electricity went to other lines and a surge of power rippled across the region, taking down power-supply systems. Most of Washington was spared.

"But the point is," Bose said, "you can never expect the same thing to happen in the same way ever again."

Jonathan Martin & Craig Welch
Blackouts Unlikely Here, Utilities say; Others Not So Sure
Seattle Times Company, August 15, 2003

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