The Blackout

One example of such an infrastructure failure was the massive North American electrical blackout on August 14, 2003. Affecting an estimated 50 million people over an area of 9,300 square miles across Canada and eight U.S. states, the blackout was attributed to the failure of an electrical utility supplier, FirstEnergy Corporation, to trim trees in part of its Ohio service area. According to reports from the task force that investigated the causes of the blackout, a generating plant in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, went offline in the midst of high electrical demand, putting a strain on highvoltage power lines. These lines came into contact with overgrown trees, short-circuited, and automatically went out of service. Because of a glitch in intersystem communications, other control centers were not warned about the event, and a cascading series of shutdowns were triggered until ultimately more than 100 power plants were offline. In the days after the blackout the nationwide electric power transmission grid was scrutinized. The event highlighted the need for a more modernized electrical energy infrastructure.

The U.S. electricity industry was once vertically integrated, meaning that a single corporation controlled all or nearly all aspects of production, including generating plants, long-distance transmission lines, and electricity distribution centers. While such an arrangement can streamline the coordination of generation, transmission, and distribution activities, it can also result in monopolies. U.S. deregulation laws and policies to discourage monopolies have led to more defined divisions among generation, transmission, and distribution activities. Many people blamed deregulation for the North American blackout, asserting that it had created an electricity market with very little accountability for outdated transmission lines and malfunctioning security systems.

Another factor cited for the inadequacies in the U.S. electrical power infrastructure is the very way electricity is generated. Electricity cannot be stored with much stability for extended periods and is quickly consumed after being produced. So an electrical power grid must be able to meet the demand placed on it with both adequate supply and great efficiency. Also, the dynamics of power grids themselves can cause infrastructure problems. For example, power grids automatically disconnect when sudden changes in demand on power lines and generators are detected, because such imbalances can cause costly damage, and power lines are automatically disconnected when a short circuit is detected. Fluctuations in power caused when a power line goes out of service can cause failure in other parts of the system when the changes in power are detected. Normally, during a built-in delay period before further shutdowns kick in, the cause of the power failure is communicated between systems and electrical power is redirected through appropriate alternate transmission lines. The blackout of 2003 was, in part, blamed on a defect in such a communication process.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment