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Experts: U.S. risk of demand-linked blackout low

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:05 a.m.

Energy experts say it's unlikely the nation's power grid could experience an outage such as one in India on Monday that disrupted life for 370 million people, largely because American operators in a competitive marketplace keep aging infrastructure in better shape.

Even on a smaller scale, “you can never say never, but the risk of it happening here is extremely low,” said Gregory Reed, an electric power engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The power grid crash in Northern India delayed trains, closed many businesses for the day and forced hospitals and airports to use backup power sources. Crews worked for 15 hours to restore power on a day when predawn temperatures reached 90 degrees or hotter, officials said. They pegged high demand as a likely cause of the blackout but planned an investigation.

A systemwide, demand-related blackout hasn't occurred for several decades in the regional grid operated by PJM Interconnection of Valley Forge that includes Western Pennsylvania and all or parts of 13 states and Washington, though weather-related outages have affected some of its 60 million residents, spokeswoman Paula DuPont-Kidd said.

“We're built and designed to try to offset any risk we know of to prevent (blackouts) from happening,” she said.

The electricity grid in the United States is a complex network of power plants, transmission lines and regional transmission organizations such as PJM. Much of the country's electricity infrastructure was installed from the 1930s to the 1970s, Reed said.

Parts of the country have experienced widespread blackouts — including in September in the Southwest and Southern California, and in 2003 in the Northeast and Midwest. Both incidents disrupted electricity for millions of people. Sagging power lines started the Northeast power outage; human error caused the blackout in the West.

Western Pennsylvania largely is spared from non-weather-related outages because of high energy production in the region and lower demand, said Joey Vallarian, spokesman for Duquesne Light, which has 380,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties.

“Most of the blackouts and brownouts that you see have been overuse and loss of supply,” Vallarian said. “Luckily for us, that's not something we've had to worry about.”

Duquesne Light experienced its largest power outages in recent years during the February 2010 snowstorm that dumped 21 inches in two days and the rainstorms in 2008 that swept through the region after Hurricane Ike. Both affected more than 100,000 customers, Vallarian said.

PJM operates in a “summer-peak grid,” DuPont-Kidd said, giving it the ability to plan for high demand caused by summer heat. Since June 1, the Pittsburgh area has recorded 16 days of temperatures at or above 90 degrees, National Weather Service records show.

This summer, PJM forecast peak demand at 153,780 megawatts and increased its generation capacity to more than 185,000 megawatts. It reached a record demand of more than 163,000 megawatts last July.

The region's grid hit its highest peak this year of 155,100 megawatts on July 17, when the temperature reached 97 degrees.

PJM secures power capacity three years in advance, drawing from a fuel mix of coal, gas, nuclear and hydroelectric, DuPont-Kidd said. In recent years, grid operators have invested in technology that enables them to visualize what is happening in their grids and neighboring ones and detect problems before massive blackouts, she said.

“Operationally, there are a number of things we do to prepare,” DuPont-Kidd said. “And our market structure helps as well, to make sure the power that is needed is there.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or

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