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10 Years after the 2003 Northeast Blackout

August 14, 2013 - 5:19pm

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Ten years ago today, large portions of the Midwest and Northeast United States and into Canada went dark. The cascading event, which started shortly after 4:00 PM on August 14, 2003, ended up affecting an estimated 50 million people. For some customers, power was not restored for nearly four days.

The Department of Energy and Natural Resources Canada jointly commissioned a task force that examined the underlying causes of the blackout and recommended forty-six actions to enhance the reliability of the North American power system. A number of the recommendations were incorporated into law passed by Congress and enacted in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Infrastructure Security Act of 2007.

A key recommendation that came out of the task force was to make compliance with reliability standards mandatory, with non-compliance involving penalties. That recommendation was made into law. Another important change came with EPACT 2005 which created a new regulatory organization to ensure the reliability of the U.S. grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which was chosen to fulfill this role in 2006, assesses the reliability of the grid, develops reliability standards, and enforces compliance.

Since 2003, the Federal government and the electricity industry have made significant investments in new technologies to modernize the nation’s grid. The investment in new smart grid devices and overall grid modernization activities occurred via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which dedicated $4.5 billion in government funds (matched by private funding to total $9.5 billion) to increase the reliability and resiliency of the U.S. power system. These investments accelerated the deployment of a wide range of advanced tools and technologies that are helping utilities better manage and respond to disruptions. The deployment of advanced sensors known as synchrophasors gives utilities better visibility into the health of the grid, helping them respond more quickly to abnormal conditions. A new report that we issued earlier this week explains how 12 Recovery Act-funded recipients are deploying these devices and are beginning to use them to manage system operations and analyze events after they occur. 

The Energy Department is also investing in applied research in both tools and applications to enable fuller use of the massive flows of data that these new measurement and monitoring devices generate. Current work is focused on the development of new computation methods that will enable system operators to both better manage interdependencies and predict events before they occur, improving operational reliability and grid efficiency. 

The 2003 blackout reshaped the conversation of the electric industry, from a conversation of response and restoration, to one of greater situational awareness, coordination, and planning. While we have made significant progress since 2003, more work remains to be done. Our close partnerships with State partners and the electricity industry to provide knowledge, resources, and support in developing effective risk-based approaches which help identify impacts in advance of events will continue to play a crucial role in helping to ensure that the nation is ready for the challenges of today’s dynamic environment.

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