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One year after the 2003 blackout: Is Wisconsin prepared?

On Aug. 13 and 14, 2003, the United States was hit with the largest blackout in its history. Wild power surges and transmission failures exposed holes in the grid that were previously unknown. It’s business as usual for Wisconsin power companies, now that preparing for a similar disaster has been placed on their agendas.

The blackout’s effects were unprecedented, shutting down a hundred power plants through the United States and Canada—21 in the first three minutes alone. Fifty million people throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest were left without power for two days, including some in major urban centers such as New York City, Detroit, and Ottawa. The drain in power led to a loss of a record 61,800 megawatts and cost consumers at least $7 billion.

The numbers seem staggering at first glance, but the blackout was far less damaging than the “third-world electrical infrastructure” that newspapers declared was in place. For starters, there were no fatalities related to a loss of power during the weekend, which was “surprising”, according to Bill Sweet of IEEE Spectrum, for a debacle of that scale.

“It appears to have had less effect than one might have thought,” Sweet said, crediting the fact that it occurred on a Friday afternoon. “Things were pretty shut down, so there was less disruption.”

Even this disruption failed to cripple Wisconsin. The major power companies suffered few to no alterations to the power flow through the state. We Energies reported no change of pace in transmission as its system control was able to observe the crashes beforehand and adjust, while Alliant Energy only lost one power station in Edgewater at the transmission level and was able to bring it back online within two hours.
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While Wisconsin was only touched lightly, the message the blackout sent remained clear. “We were fortunate ... [but] it definitely rang alarm bells about the system,” said Erin Dammen, a spokesperson for Alliant Energy. “Obviously the grid is interconnected, and what happens throughout the nation will affect us.”

The blackout drove into power companies a key idea – the need for as much backup power as possible. This summer Alliant opened the Riverside Energy Center ahead of schedule as a fallback plant, and it has made an agreement with the plant’s owner, Calpine Corporation, to purchase 450 megawatts of energy. The company also broke ground on a new plant in Sheboygan, which will open in summer 2005 and add another 300 megawatts to reserves. We Energies has also chosen to increase the reliability of the system with additional units by constructing a new system in Port Washington.

Power transmission is also important to preventing a repeat blackout and is an aspect handled in Wisconsin by firms such as the American Transmission Company. ATC has since its inception in 2001 poured over $800 million into revising and rebuilding transmission systems across the state, with projects including increased voltage on Dane Country transmission lines, new lines to connect Femrite and Sprecher power stations, and the addition of 17 miles of 138-kilovolt transmission lines to upgraded stations in Jefferson County.

“There are needs for improvement in many places – small-level upgrades and large-scale projects,” ATC spokesperson Annemarie Newman said. “Our company remains aggressive in making improvements to the system ... working to upgrade and rebuild.”

Wisconsin companies have been making strides to upgrade, but the real problem may lie with the framework of the system itself. According to Stephen Heins, vice president of corporate communication for Orion Energy Systems, the blackout exposed some key flaws in the energy network of America: there are thousands of transmission lines that have no real protection, power nodes that are critical to operation and easy to knock out, and generators that are located far from the users and repair methods.

Heins suggests the best way to prevent a reoccurrence of last year’s blackout is to work toward energy efficiency. Implementing strategies such as HVAC and daylight harvesting could save an estimated 100,000 megawatts, a dramatic step toward relieving pressure on the system and improving the capacity to handle other surges. Cooperation between states and regions is vital to preserving the power as well, so that during a disaster power is not a disputed resource.

“This solution offers a major opportunity to be cost-effective and environmentally sound without all of the political baggage associated with a continental, national or regional approach to an energy policy,” Heins said.

Even if these measures are taken, the possibility for failure always remains in the background, thanks to the size of the power network. “There’s a school of thought—that I neither endorse nor reject—that argues even if you did everything, this is a kind of arcane mathematics that obeys the same kind of rules natural disasters obey,” Sweet said.

“The grid is so big and complex and impossible to understand, it resembles a natural event ... to be seen with some statistical regularity,” he said.

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