These articles were written by Barbara Figge Fox and Kathleen McGinn Spring
At the Forrestal Village offices of NERC, the North American Electric Reliability Council, all the lights were on and the air conditioning was set to frigid. But with New York’s subways still missing in action and Cleveland’s water crisis deepening, it was not business as usual last Friday, August 15, at NERC, where the mission is ensuring that electric power companies are able to keep their customers’ lights on.
Signs pasted onto each of NERC’s three doors declared — in bold letters: Please Do Not Allow Anyone to Enter This Door Without Clearance. NERC’s main door, made of glass with a snazzy electric- grid-like design etched two-thirds of the way up, had still another homemade sign. It informed visitors that they would only be admitted after buzzing the receptionist, and stating their business.
Responding to a buzz, the receptionist motioned our reporter in, and then went back to answering the phones, saying, over and over, "NERC, can you hold?"
Asked for some insight into what newscasters were alternately calling "The Blackout of 2003" and "The Biggest Blackout in History, the pleasant receptionist asked, "Do you have an appointment?" Receiving a negative response she said, "You shouldn’t have been able to get up here!"
Queried on the chances of obtaining an interview appointment, the receptionist said "Everyone is busy giving interviews. You have to call."
Exiting, our reporter headed down from NERC’s third floor offices, as the beleaguered receptionist continued to chant "NERC, can you hold?" "NERC can you hold?"
Back at the office, and surfing the web for blackout updates, we discovered that New Jersey Online, the regular website of the Newark Star Ledger, was down because of the blackout. In its place was a set of links to other sites with update information. NERC, the North American Electric Reliability Council, made the list — as "oxymoron of the day."
By Monday, the power was on again for the 50 million people affected by the blackout, and the NERC office was back nearly to normal. This not-for-profit company was formed as a result of the Northeast blackout in 1965 to promote the reliability of the bulk electric systems that serve North America. It consists of 10 Regional Reliability Councils that account for virtually all the electricity supplied in the United States, Canada, and part of Mexico.
"It has been rather hectic, but the systems are back and working," says Ron Niebo in a telephone interview.
Niebo, assistant to the president and a 25-year NERC employee, describes what had been happening at his 41-person office. On Thursday at 2 p.m. an Ohio-based energy company began having service problems, and at 4 p.m. the problems escalated. Utilities in Canada and the eastern United States experienced power swings at 4:08. Shutdowns began at 4:09 in Cleveland, and within nine or ten seconds the power outages ricocheted through New York, New England, Canada, Michigan, and northern New Jersey. Twenty-one power plants went down.
Even here in Central New Jersey, where most homes and businesses experienced only a momentary flicker of power, the College of New Jersey went dark for about an hour before power was restored. New York City and northern New Jersey stayed dark.
NERC staffers swung into action, staying at the office until 2 a.m. on Friday morning. They went home to take naps and change clothes, then reported back on Friday at 5 a.m., sending out for sandwiches and Italian food, and working until midnight, returning early on Saturday morning.
For the first 36 hours they held almost hourly conference calls with 23 "reliability coordinators" across the United States. Each utility company was trying to find out what failed and what did not fail, and if it did not fail, exactly why it did not. The federal departments of energy and homeland security — even a staff person from the White House — sat in on these calls.
There was no panic, says Niebo, because system operators deal with crises all the time. "They were calm and directed, acting on a plan that they had gone over many times, with the knowledge that they were progressing to an obvious goal."
Then there were the interviews. Media trucks began parking at Forrestal Village on Friday at 5 a.m. for the early morning shows, and the interviews continued all day. On tap were Michehl R. Gent (president and CEO), David N. Cook (vice president and general counsel), David R. Nevius (senior vice president), and Ellen P. Vancko (director of communications and government affairs).
"Our chief executives doing the presentations were being fed by all the rest of us putting together the basic material," says Niebo. "Voice mail, fax, E-mails — we have many personal contacts, and we used everyone available. Everyone lent a hand."
The crisis is not over. Investigators will travel all over the United States to make their inspections, and they won’t have an easy job.In 1996 it took NERC two months to finish a report on a 30 megawatt outage that lasted up to five hours. In comparison, this outage was 68,800 megawatts and lasted up to two days. "While plane-crash investigators look for the black box, analyzing a grid collapse requires gathering the equivalent of thousands of black boxes," explained the Wall Street Journal.
Everyone is asking how this blackout could possibly happen. "We’re asking that, too," Gent told reporters. "If we designed a system to make sure this doesn’t happen, then how did it happen? I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate. We are looking at the sequence of events and the final verdict could be months away but we should have some preliminary data by next week." He ruled out weather or demand load as the cause.
Gent, 62, is a graduate of Texas A&M with a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. Before joining NERC in 1980, he had been general manager of the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group. He has been president since 1982.
The organization started out at Princeton Forrestal Center, known for its redundant infrastructure. It moved to Forrestal Village, which is also well wired, in 1993. In 1998 it was working to ensure that all its member companies would be able to meet any possible Year 2000 challenge. Since 9/11 NERC has redoubled its efforts to secure the nation’s power systems from sabotage, terrorism, and cyber terrorism.
Early in the history of the Internet, NERC had established its own Internet servers, and it offered ISP services to the community at minimal cost. Last spring, partly in response to increased demands on staff time, NERC turned over its retail customers to a private firm. But it kept control of its own node. Niebo notes that NERC had no problem with its Internet service during the blackout.
Two years ago Gent and chief counsel Cook testified before Congress to support a proposed change: Instead of asking utilities to voluntarily comply with transmission system reliability standards, an industry-led organization (NERC) would promulgate and enforce mandatory rules. NERC would be backed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the United States and by the appropriate regulators in Canada and Mexico.
"The question is not whether, but when the next major failure of the grid will occur," warned Gent then.
"With or without Congressional guidance, the electricity industry is changing in fundamental ways," summarized Gent. "These changes are disrupting the mechanisms that ensured the reliability of the North American electricity grid. In order to prevent these changes from jeopardizing the reliability of our electric transmission system, we must adapt how we deal with reliability of the bulk power system."
In explaining the proposed change, Gent compared NERC to NASDAQ: NASDAQ assures that companies comply with the rules and the SEC is armed to do the enforcing.
Gent told Congress that NERC sets the standards by which the grid is operated from moment to moment, as well as the standards for what needs to be taken into account when planning, designing, and constructing a secure system. But deregulation has caused some problems. "NERC’s rules, which are not enforceable, have generally been followed, but that is starting to change. As economic and political pressures on electricity suppliers increase and as the vertically integrated companies are being disaggregated, NERC is seeing an increase in the number and severity of rules violations."
In interviews last week, Gent pointed out that the loop of transmission lines that failed first, the Lake Erie Loop, has "been a problem for years, and there have been all sorts of plans to make this a more reliable thing, with cables under the lake and such, but nothing has come to fruition."
Last week’s blackout affected 50 million people, compared to November 9, 1965, when a series of power outages left about 30 million people without electricity in the northeast. "Utilities have been preparing for years with equipment sharing agreements and all kinds of support to ensure that neighboring utilities will be able to recover," says Niebo.
Later outages were better contained. The blackout on July 13, 1977, was caused by thunderstorms that knocked out power lines, and affected as many as 9 million people. It triggered looting and crime in New York City. The western United States got hit in 1996, when 15 states and parts of Canada had power outages on July 2 and seven states suffered on August 10, when about 4 million people were affected. The 1996 problems were blamed on such causes as sagging lines, trees that needed pruning, and hot weather.
At the time of the 1965 blackout, Niebo was an undergraduate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and had a part-time job. "I was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike — when it went blank. That was an amazing sight. I never realized that I might one day be working for an organization that would keep the system going."
North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), 116 Village Boulevard, Princeton Forrestal Village, Suite 390, Princeton 08540-5731. Michehl R. Gent, president and CEO. 609-452-8060; fax, 609-452-9550. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Home page: www.nerc.com