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10 years after blackout, electric grid remains at risk

On the eve of the 10-year-anniversary of a historic power outage that began in Ohio and affected 50 million people in eight states and parts of Canada, the Obama administration is warning that the power grid remains at risk.

But while the Aug. 14, 2003 power outage was started by a computer glitch and an overgrown tree, the Department of Energy, in a report released Monday, said that disastrous weather is the primary cause of widespread power outages – and they say that climate change is only likely to make that problem worse.

Between 2003 and 2012, the report said, an estimated 679 widespread power outages occurred because of severe weather. Such outages, it said, cost in the nation billions of dollars and disrupt the lives of millions of Americans.

Last year – when superstorm Sandy led all other storms in destruction – weather-related power outages cost the nation between $27 billion and $52 billion. And a report by the Congressional Research Service estimates that weather-related outages cost the nation between $25 billion to $70 billion annually, including the cost of lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production and damage to the grid.

The administration called for – and received - $4.5 billion for electrical upgrades during the 2009 stimulus bill. Such investments, they said, made it easier for the cities of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to come back on line after Sandy.

Eaton, a diversified power management corporation that tracks blackouts, found that the United States saw 65 power outages affecting 50,000 or more people in 2012, a decline from 2011, when the nation saw 109 outages affecting more than 50,000.

That company found that Ohio endured 91 power outages last year. Twenty-nine were caused by weather events or falling trees. Similar circumstances caused 52 power outages in Ohio in 2011 and 38 in 2010.

The White House argues the problem is compounded by aging power lines. The average age of the nation’s power plants is more than 30 years, and 70 percent of the grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are now more than 25 years old.

The 2003 blackout was caused by overgrown trees that shut down a power line in northern Ohio. The problem was compounded by computer glitch at FirstEnergy, an Akron-based company, that caused the company to not detect and quickly react to the outage. The problem quickly cascaded as other power lines became overloaded.

The company said that the grid has been strengthened since then, with the industry adopting new standards for transmission reliability. FirstEnergy, meanwhile, is building a new $45 million transmission center in Akron that will replace its current transmission control center. It should be completed by the end of the year.

Scott Moore, vice president of transmission engineering and project services for the Columbus-based American Electric Power, said that in the last decade, utility companies have increased training for staff and begun using new tools to prevent similar blackouts.

They’re also doing a better job of trimming trees – something that could help prevent weather-related blackouts. And they’re working to update outdated infrastructure.

“There’s no guarantee,” he said, saying nothing can prevent “acts of God.” “But I think there has been a major improvement in the system.”

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