The blackout of August 2003 pointed out a glaring flaw in the nation's electric reliability standards: There were none. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) has since changed all that.
When 50 million people in eight states and a province of Canada suddenly lost power on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2003, it had nothing to do with cybercrime. Investigators eventually traced the problem to, among other things, some overgrown foliage and a software bug in a power plant control room's alarm system.
That blackout, the largest in U.S. history, pointed out a glaring flaw in the nation's electric reliability standards: There were none.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) has since changed all that.
"NERC's mission is to ensure the reliability of the bulk power system in North America," says Scott Feuerborn, Burns & McDonnell manager of power system planning. Since 2007, NERC has introduced dozens of mandatory and legally enforceable standards, covering everything from transmission planning and facility design to communications, resource and demand balancing. Taken together, they are designed to prevent failures like the one that occurred a decade ago.
"To comply, utilities are now required to conduct a multitude of technical analyses to meet these standards, correct any deficiencies, and provide NERC with documentation that proves it," says Feuerborn, whose group helps utilities perform these assessments and then design and implement mitigation efforts.
Consider, for example, NERC's standards for transmission planning, which require utilities to analyze their ability to meet their systems' future load requirements.
"Transmission systems evolve," Feuerborn says. "As energy generation shifts from coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy sources, it's driving changes in the way power flows across the grid. New gas facilities are connecting to the grid in different places than the coal plants. The studies required to meet this standard help utilities identify where new transmission lines or substations are needed to improve system performance when new resources connect to the grid."
What's Next: Sun Spots?
Additional NERC reliability standards are on the horizon. A new transmission planning standard now under consideration, for example, addresses geomagnetic disturbance — the bursts of solar energy commonly known as sun spots. "The sun is continually sending electromagnetic waves out into space which come to Earth, and those disturbances have been shown to cause damage to the grid," Feuerborn says.
"The reality is, NERC standards are always in flux, because the world is in flux. The important thing is to stay on top of them. No utility wants to be responsible for bringing down the grid."
For more information, contact Scott Feuerborn, 816-822-3907.