My last editorial poked fun at opportunists attempting to leverage the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout for their financial gain. But I also peered into the report filed by the Joint U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force and reviewed its key recommendations. Now, let's see if we can find the will to implement these recommendations. Just acting on one recommendation, shielding operators from grief when they follow load-shedding guidelines, would make a major difference. Add enforceable reliability standards, operator training and better real-time tools, and we can get a great head start in putting processes in place that will allow us to properly operate the bulk power system.

I just returned from the T&D World Expo, where David Nevius, senior vice president with North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), clued us in on how his life has changed since the blackout. Things are really hopping over at NERC. Nevius and I talked for several hours after his keynote presentation. I found him to be a straight shooter. For instance, Nevius stated, “The blackout simply would not have happened if existing voluntary NERC standards were followed.”

Nevius relayed the following deficiencies that contributed to the blackout:

  • FirstEnergy and the local NERC reliability council failed to fully comprehend issues related to reactive power resources and voltage instability.

  • FirstEnergy lacked adequate situational awareness because of a loss of alarming capability.

  • Vegetation contact occurred even though no lines were being operated over their stated ratings.

  • The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) did not have sufficient real-time diagnostic capability.

NERC is now working to develop a revised set of clear, enforceable standards, which should be ready by next February. Nevius is hopeful Congress will pass laws to make NERC standards mandatory, but says, “We can't afford to stand still.” And why should we? In the nine years I've been here, Congress has yet to pass a single significant piece of legislation to address grid reliability.

NERC is considering all means available to assure compliance including “naming names” of non-compliant utilities. Nevius believes NERC can “tap into the power of shame.”

Our nuclear industry already holds itself accountable. They have the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), a voluntary industry group made up of nuclear generating companies that hold one another privately accountable by sharing lists of the best and worst performing nuclear plants. Nuclear executives respond because they hate to see their plants make these lists in front of their fellow CEOs. The nuclear industry learned the hard way that one or two bad actors can bring down an entire industry.

NERC has several strategic initiatives in the works that should have an immediate impact. NERC is calling on utilities to perform readiness and tree-trimming audits. NERC is also developing a program to track the implementation of recommendations that come from these audits. Too often, we just ask utilities what they intend to do, without ever asking if they actually accomplished anything. NERC is developing compliance templates to address the What, When and How. We all know that compliance — not adequacy — is the key to keeping our grid operating, and we can always protect a less-than-adequate system by shedding load and cutting back on transactions.

Investing in People and Facilities

Of course, regional brownouts and rolling blackouts provide no long-term solution. We need to address the damage done to our infrastructure caused by long-term neglect.

Nevius and I weren't able to cover all the initiatives now underway at NERC, but he invited me to NERC headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, where I can dig into more detail. I can't wait to visit. I want to find out more about activities within the NERC critical infrastructure protection committee, which is looking at a whole host of electricity infrastructure protection issues. This committee is also trying to get their arms around the huge issue of cyber-security. Of course, these issues must be handled with care. The last thing I'd want to do is provide security information to terrorists who could turn that knowledge against us.

As an industry, we are now making progress and addressing issues that have been dormant too long. We are building new transmission and tapping into powerful system simulators. We are using technology to control power flows and developing enforceable reliability rules. Let's keep our pedal to the floor. We can't afford to lose heart. We must find the resolve to build and operate our grid reliably.