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Enery companies looking ahead at reliability issues

While much of the Northeast U.S., including New York City and parts of Canada, was blanketed in darkness Aug. 14, 2003, in a rolling electrical blackout that surprised more than 50 million people, Southerners basked in the comfort of reliable energy.

The event known as the electric industry`s “perfect storm” brought to the forefront power grid issues across America, prompting concerns about the reliability of the nation`s electrical transmission system. Subsequent industry reports have pointed out that Southern systems are stronger and more modern than other regions of the country.

When a joint U.S.-Canada task force released the final report March 31 of its major investigation into the blackout, the blame was placed on a lack of reactive power, improper vegetation management, and failure to ensure operation within secure limits, and other factors. A series of recommendations to prevent or minimize the likelihood of a recurrence included:

• Strengthening the North American Electric Reliability Council`s (NERC) institutional framework and its initiatives on compliance;

• Strengthening the technical recommendations made by NERC on Feb. 10;

• Improving near-term and long-term training and certification requirements for operators, reliability coordinators and operator support staff; and

• Increasing the physical and cyber security of the network.

“While we can never guarantee such an event will not take place here, the modern generating and transmission infrastructure now in place across much of the South should reduce the chances for a similar event in our region,” said Kurt Brautigam, spokesperson for Mississippi Power Company. “Companies in our region have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade transmission lines and build generating plants to mitigate the possibility of an energy shortage. As a result, reserve margins of generating capacity are much higher in the southeast than in other parts of the country, so our systems are not as overloaded as some in other regions.”

Entergy Mississippi CEO Carolyn Shanks said the utility company has numerous ongoing efforts to ensure the reliability of its transmission system.

“For 2004, the entire Entergy system has upwards of $300 million budgeted for transmission operations and maintenance and system upgrades,” she said. “We consider about one-third of that earmarked for strategic projects, those designed specifically to relieve load in areas and ensure that we can reliably provide power to our customers.”

Entergy is working on other efforts to increase reliability, said Shanks.

“For example, we’re installing a software system that will actually help us manage in real time what is occurring across our transmission system, because the conditions are pretty dynamic and change relative to the weather temperature, whether companies or industries are running or down, or if a generating plant is down. This new system will allow us, in a real-time basis, to analyze those conditions to make sure we’re continually able to provide power to our customers and allow us to maybe provide power from another source if we need to because of transmission issues.”

Autotransformers that will increase the capacity in certain areas are budgeted for installation, said Shanks.

“We’re upgrading lines, maybe going from a 230-KV (kilovolt) to a 500-KV line,” she said. “And we’re continuing to look at transmission needs as we buy power from merchant generators to ensure capabilities to get power to our customers that is cheaper or more economical than our own existing generation.”

Glenn McCullough, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the regional public power company is investing more than $220 million in its transmission system and is working with local distributors “to make sure we have a transmission system that is strong and enables the lights to stay on across the Tennessee Valley.”

“Externally, we think `seams’ agreements with neighboring utilities and other public power entities in our region is a good way to coordinate the flow of electricity,” he said. “But if you`ll take a look at the Southeast, and the record that TVA and utilities in the Southeast have achieved – Mississippi Power and Entergy are two of those – reliability is pretty good and rates are comparatively low, so we need to be very cautious. If something`s not broken, let`s not try to fix it. We need to work with the public service commissioners in Mississippi and in neighboring states to insure that reliability policy is sound and again will enable the consumer to benefit.”

Mississippi Power owns and operates 2,000 miles of transmission lines and more than 6,000 miles of distribution lines. The entire system is automated and continually monitored for potential problems, with personnel at the Transmission Control Center and the Distribution Operations Center observing the system around the clock, said Brautigam.

“We’ve also continued to add more transmission capacity to keep up with the demands of our customers,” he said. “All those facilities have sophisticated sensing and protection equipment. We believe it would take a series of significant, unexpected events to cause an outage like the one that occurred in the northeast.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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