The cascading power outages in the Northeast on Thursday underscore what energy experts have been warning about for years: The system can go down anywhere at any time.
Years of neglected investment in the vast and antiquated network that moves electricity around the country -- combined with steadily growing power needs -- have left the nation’s electricity grid vulnerable to disruptions, analysts say.
“If people think there is a bullet-proof electrical system, they are mistaken,” said Carl R. Danner, a power expert and director at LECG, an economic and financial consulting firm.
Such blips can be so minor that only your microwave clock notices. But on occasion, many thousands of people find their lives disrupted for hours on end, as happened twice in 1996 in California and other Western states; in 1998 in the Midwest and Canada; and again on Thursday when blackouts rolled across major East Coast cities.
“We’re the world’s greatest superpower, but we have a Third World electricity grid,” former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico, said in an interview Thursday on CNN.
The cause of Thursday’s blackouts wasn’t immediately clear. But some warned that the episode could be a harbinger of problems in other areas, including California.
President Bush, for one, said that he believes “our grid needs to be modernized,” adding that he viewed Thursday’s troubles as “an interesting lesson for our country.”
A 2000 study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an international consulting firm, concluded that the North American grid system was overstressed by increasing demand and plagued by gridlock.
Companies, the report found, lacked incentives to invest in expansion and upgrades to equipment that in some cases dates to World War II because the transmission business is heavily regulated and financial returns historically have been lackluster.
The amount that companies can earn “is not necessarily very attractive,” especially given “how difficult it is to develop” new transmission lines, said David Clement of Cambridge Energy Research.
In addition, vigorous community opposition -- the not-in-my-backyard syndrome -- has kept new transmission lines from being built. A transmission line proposed for the San Diego area, for example, was recently shot down by the California Public Utilities Commission after much public protest.
The transmission grid for North America is divided into three largely autonomous zones: the so-called Eastern interconnection, which covers states east of Colorado and part of Canada; the Western interconnection, covering California and 10 other states, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada; and Texas, whose system stands alone.
In each case, supply and demand are precariously balanced moment to moment.
Employees working for a web of quasi-public entities and municipalities direct electron traffic along miles and miles of inch-thick aluminum and steel cables, which hang from 150-foot-high towers a quarter-mile apart.
“The grid is a complex machine -- one of the largest machines in the world,” Clement said. “Given the ... number of different components, it’s almost surprising that we don’t have more” failures.
Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, defended how the grid has performed in recent years, pointing to the relative rarity of massive power failures.
“We still think this is the finest electrical power system in the world,” Owen said. “Obviously, there are some challenges and it needs some investment.... But there’s no system that is completely impervious to failure, especially one that’s as broad and as complex and as interconnected as ours is.”
Terry Winter, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, noted that the blackouts in the East were much different from California’s outages during the energy crisis in 2001. Those were planned, rotating blackouts designed to prevent the kind of uncontrolled outages seen Thursday.
California today is in much better shape than it was two years ago, having added 9000 megawatts of generation, Winter said. What’s more, a public-private consortium including Pacific Gas & Electric is about to expand a key power transmission corridor in the Central Valley, known as Path 15.
Still, Winter acknowledged, it’s crucial that more lines be added elsewhere throughout the state. Federal and state regulators and municipalities “all need to be concerned and work together to expand this grid,” he said.
He noted that the California system has been strained a bit of late. “We’ve had to operate it a little closer” to the edge than in the past, he said.
California’s last big power outage came on Aug. 10, 1996, when some power lines in Oregon sagged into trees. The lines shut themselves off and triggered a chain reaction of automatic switch-offs and surges of electricity, sending outages sweeping across several Western states. More than 7.5 million people were left without power.
Los Angeles city officials called a news conference Thursday to proclaim the Department of Water and Power’s invulnerability to the kind of blackouts that swept the Northeast Thursday afternoon.
Officials said they have the ability to isolate Los Angeles’ system to protect it from problems occurring elsewhere in the western part of the United States.