The Grid Optimization Blog

Our Fragile, Challenged Electric System

Is our electric system better than it was 10 years ago?

With the recent anniversary of the historic 2003 Northeast Blackout, the short answer is, “Yes, but it is still a long way from what it should be.”

While national reliability standards have been adopted, making it far less likely that falling trees in Ohio will take out power in the northeast for over 24 hours, more needs to be done to bolster an electric system that remains fragile, challenged, and in need of  overhaul.

The lights stay on when we generate a sufficient supply of power, and effectively transmit it. Unfortunately, there are areas with power supply issues in the northeast, as well as in other areas of the country, and balkanized transmission systems predominantly built, designed, and engineered decades ago for local utilities to move power only over short distances.

In particular, while downstate New York has squeaked by the past few hot summers from a supply standpoint, the potential closure of a number of power plants, an overall lack of new generation in the pipeline, and growing demand are among the issues that must be addressed.

Reflections of this are the calls to close Indian Point, which provides 25 percent of New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley’s power. The New York Independent System Operator, has expressed serious concern about this because it views the continued operation of this facility essential. 

In this context, the areas needing to be addressed in New York serve as a good example for the rest of the country in striving to establish and maintain world-class electrical systems.

  • Improve the Transmission Grid.  A 2012 report by the New York State Transmission and Reliability Study (STARS) found that approximately $25 billion must be spent to replace large sections of the electric power grid.  These investments must be undertaken in the near future, starting with those that have the greatest benefits for the least cost.
  • Reduce Reliance on Out-of-State Power.  Electricity is a manufactured product that was first deployed in downtown New York City. In recent years, New York has become increasingly reliant on out-of-state power from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Canada. This trend must be tempered by constructing more plants in New York providing a greater measure of reliability.
  • Realize Electricity Demand will Grow.  Too often in recent years official policies have placed too much reliance on efficiency programs to manage the future growth of electric demand. Efficiency, however, has to be recognized as only a partial remedy, since population and economic growth, and the increased use of electronic devices, as just a few examples, will continue to grow the demand for electricity.
  • Gear up for a Cyber-Attack.  Many experts believe it is a question of when and not if our enemies will launch a cyber-attack on the electric grid and there are a number of prime targets throughout the US. Amid budget sequestration and national fiscal uncertainty, it is essential that programs to deal with such attacks be fully funded.
  • Be Ready for the Next Superstorm.  Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene left millions in the northeast without power for days, some for even several weeks.  With extreme weather events happening more frequently, the grid must be hardened to lessen the impact of such storms. To address these matters, Con Ed has requested a rate increase amounting to three percent of a typical customer’s bill should.

Establishing and maintaining a world-class generation and transmission system will provide sustained, long-term stimulus to the economy, reduce carbon and other toxic emissions, and enhance public safety. However, these challenges and opportunities cannot be realized overnight and require a sustained and determined effort, similar to how the utility industry has responded to significant challenges time and time again in the past.. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Sep 11, 2013

Dr. Cordaro, thank you for a very clear presentation. It seems that your 5 recommendations are either for the fairly short term or assume that the utility paradigm will stay about the same. How would microgrids, for example, or more disbursed generation change the equation?

on Sep 11, 2013

True, distributed generation as well as other changes will ultimately influence the equation. However, the time scale for this to have a significant enough impact is still a decade or two away. Realistically in the interim we have few choices beyond what I have suggested. As more progress is made, prudent utility planning should take into account new developments which can reduce cost and improve reliability.

on Sep 11, 2013

Matt, thanks for your comprehensive comments. Looking further down the road, how do you think the availability of low cost natural gas will impact generation? Will we see major gas pipelines built into city centers or will new gas-fired generation be located outside major load centers? This is a critical question as our delivery companies will be tasked to deliver this electriicty to customers.

on Sep 11, 2013

It is a mixed bag. If gas remains the fuel of choice in terms of cost and availability major pipelines may be extended into city centers but for purposes other than central station electric generation, including perhaps distributed generation. Major gas fired generating plants will continue to be located outside major load centers. An exception to this might be the repowering of old generators originally sited within the city limits using natural gas.

on Sep 12, 2013

Dr. Cordaro: I'd add another item to your bulletted list:
If we want to meet societal needs for electricity and keep the lights on and prices in check, we cannot simply and only build our way out of this situation. It will take a lot of new technology, especially "smart" technology.

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Matthew C. Cordaro, PhD

Dr. Matthew C. Cordaro, whose career spans many years as a senior executive in the utility industry, an educator, scientist and researcher in the fields of business, energy and environment, most...

Paul Mauldin

Paul earned his B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer. He has worked in the energy industry for more than...
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