The Power Log

It turns out that the outages in Israel that I reported on last week could have been a lot worse. Demand for electricity was at record highs during the snow storm, threatening further problems, but Israel Electric Corporation was able to turn to private power companies for additional capacity.

Foolhardy thieves stole live-wire distribution cable in Eggborough, England, blacking out three homes. Police are looking for suspects in local hospitals.

In Leighton, someone cut an underground cable. Eight-hundred homes lost power, but more importantly, a McDonald’s had to close for 4 hours!

According to Venezuela’s president, it was a single gunshot that downed a 765 kV transmission line and blacked out more than half the country on December 2nd. According to the political opposition, it was mismanagement by the state power company. Here’s the thing, if the Venezuelan power grid isn’t able to withstand a single-contingency, you could say it was both.

Residents of the village of Kamukunji in Kenya are dealing with a blackout that’s lasted 5 days.

A section of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan suffered yet another extended blackout. This time is was due to a fault on a main feeder. However, the city has also endured load shedding, low voltage, and billing issues.

Damascus, Syria was without power after an explosion along a gas pipeline cut fuel to the city’s main generating station.

In Desert Hot Springs, California, a traffic accident toppled roadside utility poles and cut power to over 500 customers of Southern California Edison.

When the central business district of New Plymouth, New Zealand lost power just before 3:00 AM, the bars were forced to close early and revelers forced in to the dark streets.

An ice storm hit more than 300,000 customers in Michigan and more in Canada. In Guelph, Ontario families dealt with the loss of electricity by opening up Christmas board game presents early.

The Power Log

Major parts of the capital district in Brunei lost power after lightning hit one 11 kV line and then hit a tree that fell on another line. The government responded by telling people not to plant fruit trees.

A storm in Estonia zapped “4,645 electrical substations”, cutting power to approximately 41,000 homes. That’d be 8.9 homes per substation, which doesn’t sound right.

Cold-weather line failures led to electric interruptions for thousands of Hydro-Quebec customers Friday. Temperatures reached -10 °C.

Also on Friday, a rare but powerful snowstorm hit the Middle-East, dumping as much as 1½ feet in desert spots and a light dusting in Cairo, which hadn’t seen the white stuff in over 100 years. Thousands were without power in Israel and the West Bank.

Though not a result of weather, Friday was not a good day in Zambia either. Undiagnosed transmission-line failures cut supplies from the 900 MW Kafue Gorge Power Station and the 655 MW Kariba North Bank Power Station. As a result, most of the country was without electricity while crews worked to identify the problem.

What is an Adequate Level of Reliability?

NERC recently closed comments on its revised definition of an adequate level of reliability. I’m confused, though. Doesn’t section 215 of the Federal Power Act already state that reliability standards are “to provide for reliable operation of the bulk-power system,” where “’reliable operation’ means operating the elements of the bulk-power system… so that instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading failures of such system will not occur?” It’s certainly what my managers at FERC used to think—that there couldn’t be a transmission event without someone having violated a standard!

In contrast, some Australians are starting to wonder if they’re paying to much for power supply more reliable than necessary. And at home in the United States, one Wall Street Journal columnist suggests that we should do a better job of preparing for blackouts, since we’ll never eliminate them.

And about that adequate level of reliability definition [PDF]… All they’ve managed to come up with is four pages of circular logic—the state the bulk electric system will achieve when standards are followed. Sheesh!

Bad PR

A week ago Friday, a severe storm blew from the Midwest through to the Mid-Atlantic, knocking out power for millions of people. In the Washington, DC area, Pepco lost 56 percent of its customers. Full restoration took the company 8 days.

Whether or not that length of time was justified, it certainly hasn’t sat well with DC and Maryland customers. Already under pressure for acknowledged poor reliability in the past, Pepco has been subject to some very intense criticism for the last week. To give you an idea of what really bad public relations looks like for an electric utility, let’s review some of the things being said about Pepco.

[Disclaimer #1: My power, usually provided by Pepco, was out for 4½ days.]

[Disclaimer #2: I recently turned down a job offer from Pepco, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of their service.]

Of course, someone started the obligatory Pepco Sucks website.

There’s also a No Power Pepco Facebook group.

A small Independence Day parade turned into an anti-Pepco protest march. Apparently, the company’s automated call-back system for updating customers on the status of restoration work was programed to say “Power has been restored to your area.” People took this to mean, “We think you have your power back,” which it wasn’t. In actuality the message was supposed to mean, “We’ve gotten closer in working our way towards your home.”

Another television news story concerned a teen injured by a downed power line and Pepco’s poor response when alerted to the hazard by the boy’s father.

[Disclaimer #3: These are friends-of-the-family.]

An article in The Washington Post’s Outlook section detailed “5 Myths About Pepco,” three of which were basically, “Don’t believe their excuses.”

Some DC musicians recorded a song titled “F*ck You, Pepco” [WARNING: as if it wasn’t obvious from the title, the video includes some strong language].

With all this bad PR, there’s certain to be consequences for Pepco’s recent rate request. An online petition asks Maryland’s governor to “Fire the utility regulators, reject rate hikes, fix PEPCO!” Another article in The Washington Post this week (Local section) was titled, “Pepco Wants to Stick Customers With Cost of Arguing its Upkeep Was Fine.”

This story is far from over and it’s not looking good for Pepco.

Cybersecurity and the Aftermath of the 2003 Blackout: An Alternate History

Do you think of NERC as big brother and the reliability standards as micromanaging your business. Imagine, if you will, something really sinister. Imagine a response to the blackout that included the takeover and centralized control of all transmission and distribution networks, as well as other infrastructure systems.

That is what Ubisoft has imagined in the company’s upcoming video game, Watch Dogs. Check it out: