North American Power Grid Desperately Needs Upgrading : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Friday February 23 2:12 PM ET N. American Power Grid Desperately Needs Upgrading

By Vibeke Laroi, Reuters News Service, Copyright (fair use for educational and research purposes only)

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Huge investments are desperately needed soon in the North American power grid to bolster the creaky system and avoid widespread blackouts down the road, industry analysts warned.

``We're heading toward a potential crisis in terms of a possible significant failure of one or more transmission lines,'' said Gerald Keenan, lead energy strategy partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

``It won't be tomorrow but within the next three to five years if there is not a significant increase in the amount of transmission,'' he said, referring to the heavy-duty high-voltage lines that crisscross the country.

And the stakes are high.

If a storm or equipment failure knocks out a high-voltage transmission line, it can trigger a cascade of blackouts across several states, creating far more havoc than localized outages on the low-voltage distribution lines that serve neighborhoods.

A surge or sudden loss of power on one part of the grid sets off circuit breakers elsewhere, shutting lines to avoid damaging transmission equipment hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

This would not be a problem if there were enough backup lines over which power could be rerouted in an emergency. But that is no longer the case.

Grid Suffering From Years Of Neglect

The grid has suffered years of neglect, falling far behind the growing needs of the U.S. and Canadian populations and creating bottlenecks in areas struggling to maintain an adequate flow of electrons to their homes and factories.

David Clement, associate director of the transmission advisory service for Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a Mass.-based independent research firm, warns ``congestion'' on the grid is now a problem throughout most of North America.

Some areas, like California, New York City, Boston and St. Paul-Minneapolis face severe capacity constraints, though they are working to remedy the problem, he said.

A big reason for the rolling blackouts that hit northern Californian over two days in January was an overcrowded north-south transmission path that hampered the flow of power to where it was most needed.

The North American power grid, built along blueprints from the 1950s, is increasingly put to uses for which it was not designed and is struggling to bear the heavy demands of a growing population and booming economy.

Power generation, which is shedding decades of regulation in favor of free market forces, has seen a burst of new investment, paving the way for a 20 percent rise in electricity supplies over the next decade if power plant construction continues at the current brisk pace, Clement said.

But transmission, which remains regulated, is gridlocked.

Over the next 10 years, planned transmission facility additions (230 kilovolt lines or bigger) will boost total installed circuit miles in North America by only 4.2 percent, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), which oversees the safety and reliability of the grid.

And while energy marketers are sending electricity ever greater distances to reach customers, most of the additions are designed to address only local transmission concerns, it said.

Risky Business

Building new transmission lines is almost impossible because of strong local opposition and the web of government agencies that are typically involved in the review process.

Another roadblock is the uncertain regulatory environment for building transmission facilities, which are built to last for decades, as well as a lack of financial incentives to efficiently operate and expand them.

Investing in transmission is risky, but that risk currently is not reflected in rates of return.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates assets used in interstate commerce, agrees that uncertainty over the future of the transmission business may increase near-term risks and require new ways to calculate return on equity.

``There are certainly a lot of transmission projects that utility companies would probably like to do if they thought it would be cost-effective for them to do so,'' Clement said.

Instead, most utilities are trying to avoid setting up new lines by squeezing as much as possible from the ones they have.

System operators, relying on better monitoring equipment, can now run power lines closer to their rated capacities without collapsing the grid. They can also string new, more efficient lines along existing paths to boost the voltage they can carry.

Also, new generating units can be built closer to where they are most needed, thus reducing the need for new transmission.

But these approaches have their limits.

Ultimately, industry analysts expect new regional grid managers, called Regional Transmission Organizations, to develop more efficient transmission planning and expansion programs.

But developing these new entities will take time, and in places like California, where demand is already close to capacity limits, time is fast running out.

-- Robert Riggs (, February 24, 2001


Reference Hyperlink: 1.html

-- Robert Riggs (, February 24, 2001.

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