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Why the Grid matters: Visiting American Electric Power

March 9, 2009

For nearly ten years I have been involved in nuclear energy issues, and I have always found value in taking field trips, traveling to the places that have direct relevance to the issues. I have visited nuclear reactors in the United States, France and Russia, as well as a nuclear reprocessing plant in France. I have also been in uranium facilities in Kazakhstan, and walked inside the tunnel at Yucca Mountain, the proposed location of the US Federal nuclear “spent fuel” repository in Nevada. Going on location has given me a sense of perspective I would never have by simply sitting in my office or going to seminars in downtown Washington D.C. In that spirit, I recently visited “command central” of the largest electrical transmission company in the United States.

In mid-February, just after visiting Charleston, West Virginia to speak on the challenges of meeting our 21st energy needs, I went to Columbus, Ohio to visit the operations of American Electric Power. AEP is the country’s largest electrical transmission company, operating a 39,000 mile transmission system that provides electricity to customers in 11 states. Bordered on four sides by other service areas, AEP is the “most connected” utility in the US electrical system. Given AEP’s importance to transmission in America, and its leadership in thinking through future energy grid issues, I requested the opportunity to visit their control room, in New Albany, Ohio where their electrical load is managed. 

Susan Eisenhower at AEP

Susan Eisenhower at AEP’s New Albany electrical grid control room

Like a visit to NASA’s control center in Houston, one senses immediately the gravity of what they do there. Technicians in New Albany are on duty around the clock, assuring that our electricity requirements are met—irrespective of the conditions and the demand—with the flip of a switch.

From various computer consoles interlinked with a constantly changing grid schematic on the wall, they apply the “brakes” or the “accelerator” to keep the flow of electricity moving smoothly. Like traffic of any kind, the objective is to avoid systemic congestion that, in this case, can result in power failure.

I have been intrigued by how this is done since I had a brush with “black out” history. In August of 2003, I was in New York City when eight states and the Canadian province of Ontario lost their electrical power. The experience made such a deep impression on me that I wrote a detailed diary entry on the fun and the fear of being in such a city during a power crisis. You will find this piece on my blog “This American Moment.” I hope you enjoy this reminiscence.

A couple of technicians I talked to in the New Albany facility remembered well those historic days in 2003. In pointing to the large service “map” on the wall, they showed me how the crisis began to develop. That day people on the desk had noticed warning signs coming from a utility, First Energy, to the north. According to Paul Johnson, who was Manager of Bulk Transmission at the time, “the heavy transfer of power due to the summer temperatures” began to overload the system. Heat on the lines led to a decrease in the voltage. These findings were reported to the other utility shortly before noon, but their computer analysis system was not functioning and by 4:00 the conditions for failure were assured. Higher loads on the circuits brought with it heat that made the power lines sag. When lines hit some trees, it was the “final straw.” This led to the massive power outage. Given its location, AEP managed to contain the crisis, averting a cascade of outages into their own service area. But in New York City, where I was preparing for a 5:00 meeting, my hotel was plunged into darkness and the other guests, along with the inhabitants of New York’s countless skyscrapers, were evacuated onto the streets.

It was nearly two days before full power was restored to customers and users.

“Unplanned things do happen,” Johnson noted. “We have to be diligent as an industry on safety, security and reliability.” In 2003 there was a convergence of many things that happened that day, and no one incident, by itself, would have caused such a massive disruption—an outage that is estimated to have cost the economy more than $10 billion and left 50 million people without power. Congestion in the system, Johnson summarized, was “loaded to its limits.”

While system failures like the historic one experienced in 2003 are rare, congestion on the grid remains an issue of considerable concern. Johnson, now Managing Director of Transmission Operations, and others often remind us: “The grid was built for a different time, a different era, for different needs.” Given my experience, I believe this is another compelling argument for modernizing our electrical infrastructure.

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