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Power industry says electric grid stable for summer

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The industry group that monitors the nation’s electric grid expects the system to perform adequately this summer, although it warned that “uncontrolled blackouts” were possible if power providers fail — as they did last August — to comply with reliability standards.

The North American Electric Reliability Council also warned Tuesday that the increasing volume of power trading that goes on in deregulated markets can cause “volatile and unpredictable flow patterns (that) can pose significant challenges for transmission system operators.”

The group said it expects peak power demand to rise by 2.5 percent from last year, slightly above the historical average of 2.4 percent, but that there should be enough electric generation capacity in all regions to handle this increased load.

Problems could arise, the group said, in managing the delivery of that power. Significant vulnerabilities remain even though grid operators have upgraded technology and become better coordinated since last Aug. 14, when 50 million people in eight states and parts of Canada were thrust into darkness.

Most distressing, industry experts said, is that nine months after the largest blackout in U.S. history the nation’s reliability standards remain voluntary.

Reliability standards deal with everything from tree-trimming around power lines to the protocols by which grid operators dispatch power.

A proposed energy bill that stalled in Congress would make these standards mandatory. In the meantime, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is going ahead with a plan to tie compliance with NERC’s reliability standards to utilities’ ability to collect transmission tariffs from customers.

NERC alluded to problems with not having a mandate in its annual report.

“If all entities comply with NERC reliability standards, there should be no uncontrolled blackouts,” the report said.

It added, though, that “even in areas where resources are expected to be adequate to serve all customer demand, unanticipated equipment problems and extremely hot weather can combine to produce situations in which demands temporarily exceed available generation and transmission capacity.”

NERC’s emphasis on reliability standards is consistent with the findings of the joint U.S.-Canadian task force that investigated last summer’s blackout. In its final report, the task force concluded that a significant cause of last summer’s blackout was the power industry’s disregard of rules intended to ensure the reliable flow of electricity.

Hoff Stauffer, an analyst at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., said another persistent problem is that power generation and transmission capacity has not increased in areas where it is most needed, particularly in the Midwest, where the cascading Aug. 14 blackout began.

As a result, transmission lines in the region will likely be stressed during periods of peak demand and that reduces reliability, Stauffer said.

NERC’s summer outlook addressed the issue by saying the Midwest’s “transmission system could become constrained during peak periods as a result of generating unit unavailability, or unplanned transmission outages.”

The recent return to service of an 883-megawatt nuclear power plant should help mitigate the region’s constraints, the report said.

The report also emphasized the tight power supply situation in California, whose system has already exhibited signs of stress. On May 3, the California Independent System Operator declared a transmission emergency, forcing industrial and commercial customers to reduce consumption because a key line in Southern California was approaching overload.

The final report of the U.S.-Canadian task force leveled much of the blame for the Aug. 14 blackout on FirstEnergy Corp., which it said failed to adequately recognize or respond to problems on three of its lines in Ohio. Investigators also found inadequate monitoring of events by the regional grid system operator.

FirstEnergy has contended that the grid problems were more widespread.

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