On Aug. 14, 2003, the North American electric grid experienced the largest blackout in its history, leaving over 50 million people across Southeastern Canada and the Northeastern U.S. without power. On this, the event’s fifth anniversary, North American Electric Reliability Corporation President and CEO Rick Sergel, highlights the progress that has been made and new challenges ahead for ensuring reliability:

“In the mid-afternoon of Aug. 14, 2003, the electric system reached a breaking point: trees contacted four separate transmission lines in Ohio – quickly taking the lines out of service; automatic controls sensed the disturbance and unnecessarily took additional lines out of service; failed computer systems left operators with inaccurate system information for hours before being addressed; and grid monitoring tools were not able to assess conditions quickly enough for operators to react.

“With the support and oversight of its stakeholders in industry and government, NERC has worked to fundamentally change the situation that allowed this catastrophic event to occur by developing mandatory reliability standards, enforcing zero-tolerance policies, leading extensive reviews of electric system components, and developing new reliability tools. As a result of these efforts, I can confidently say that the events that led to the 2003 blackout are now much less likely to recur.”

Some of the most visible changes include:

Mandatory & Enforceable Reliability Standards — NERC now has 94 mandatory and enforceable reliability standards in place throughout the U.S. and much of Canada. These standards encompass nearly 1,000 individual requirements that set the bar for reliable operations and address ‘lessons learned’ from the 2003 blackout. In the U.S., organizations found in violation of a NERC standard can be subject to fines of up to one million dollars per day, per violation.

Vegetation Management — While four transmission outages due to vegetation occurred in a single afternoon five years ago, preliminary data suggests that only six such outages occurred in the first six months of 2008 – none of which caused customers to lose power. Transmission line outages due to vegetation contact are still a cause for concern, however, and this remains a top priority for NERC. Through its standards and compliance enforcement, NERC now has a zero-tolerance policy in place, where the goal is to correct issues that may arise long before any customers are affected.

Transmission Line Controls — As a result of recommendations from U.S. – Canada Power System Outage Task Force, NERC monitored a team of industry experts that reviewed the settings of control devices called “relays” on the entire extra high voltage transmission system in North America. Of the nearly 11,000 terminals reviewed (each of which can house multiple relays), roughly twenty percent did not meet task force recommendations and were subsequently addressed on an individual basis. Since this review was completed, “relay loadability,” as it is known, has virtually ceased to exist as a cause of system disturbances. A reliability standard on this subject is now awaiting FERC approval and is already in place in two Canadian provinces.

System Operator Training & Certification — As part of its mandatory reliability standards, NERC now requires that all system operators pass certification exams and maintain their accreditation through ongoing continuing education, which must contain training on emergency operations. Nearly 20,000 continuing education hours were completed by system operators across North America last year.

Grid Monitoring Technology — As the host organization for the North American Synchro-Phasor Initiative (or NASPI), NERC has worked with the Department of Energy and stakeholders to support the application of next generation grid monitoring technology. Called “synchro-phasors,” these new devices will allow system operators to better visualize the status of the grid in near real-time and address issues as they arise. NASPI is working to support the application of this technology across the North American grid.

“As I look back over the past five years,” Sergel continued, “I see the great strides NERC and our many stakeholders have made in strengthening the reliability of the North American bulk power system. Though no standards or enforcement process can prevent all system disturbances (because issues like weather, multiple equipment failures, and human error can occur), it’s evident to me that the probability of any similar outage occurring again has been substantially reduced.

“Looking ahead, however, there are new issues coming down the road that will require even greater diligence to ensure that the system remains as reliable as possible. Cyber security and critical infrastructure protection are two of the most important of those issues. They require a fundamentally different approach than any other issue we face today. We also see many initiatives aimed at addressing climate change that will have far-reaching effects on the power system, many of which are not yet fully appreciated.

“As the organization dedicated to ensuring the reliability of the bulk power system in North America, NERC will remain committed to the public, our stakeholders, and reliability so that, five years from today, we’re able to report on our success in meeting these new challenges.”