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One Year After Blackout, Solutions Still Sought

New York, Aug 10, 2004

In the twelve months since the largest blackout in American history, doubts remain about whether the North American electricity grid is less vulnerable to blackouts than it was on August 14, 2003. An April 2004 report issued by the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force that investigated the causes of the blackout warned of the potential for another power failure, unless there was adoption of mandatory and enforceable electricity reliability standards with penalties for noncompliance. Based on that report, some remedial steps have since been taken, including trimming trees to prevent them from interfering with lines, upgrading computer systems to monitor the regional flow of electricity, and providing additional training to control-room employees. Many industry analysts, however, argue that this is inadequate, lamenting the delay of legislation that would transition from the existing voluntary system of reliability standards to federally mandated requirements; the legislation is tied up in Congress as part of a complex and controversial energy bill.

The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), an ANSI member and accredited standards developer that oversees the voluntary reliability standards for the grid, recently issued a Technical Analysis of the August 14, 2003, Blackout: What Happened, Why, and What Did We Learn? This report noted similarities with other large-scale blackouts, including conductor contacts with trees, inability of system operators to visualize events on the system, failure to operate within known safe limits, ineffective operational communications and coordination, inadequate training of operators to recognize and respond to system emergencies, and inadequate reactive power resources.

The scope of NERC’s investigation was to determine the causes of the blackout, how to reduce the likelihood of future cascading blackouts, and how to minimize the impacts of any that do occur. According to the report, “Several entities violated NERC operating policies and planning standards, and those violations contributed directly to the start of the cascading blackout.” Moreover, these violations of NERC and regional reliability standards were inadequately monitored. Other blackout causes included failure to consistently apply available system protection technologies to optimize the ability to slow or stop an uncontrolled cascading failure of the power system, and deficiencies identified in studies of prior large-scale blackouts were repeated.

The report includes the fourteen recommendations that were approved by the NERC Board of Trustees in February 2004, as well as four additional recommendations that have since been developed. These include:

  • Develop a standard on vegetation clearances.
  • Develop a standing capability for NERC to investigate future blackouts and disturbances.
  • Accelerate the standards transition.
  • Evaluate NERC actions in the areas of cyber and physical security

The grid is also under scrutiny by homeland security officials that see utilities and other elements of the national infrastructure as vulnerable to various types of terrorist attacks. The NERC Board of Trustees recently voted to approve a one-year extension of the urgent action cyber security standard 1200, effective August 13, 2004. This extension will give the industry the opportunity to complete work on a permanent cyber security standard prior to August 2005. The purpose of the cyber security standard is to reduce risks to the reliability of the bulk electric systems from any compromise of critical cyber assets.

The NERC report is available for download at

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