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Rutland Herald Commentary

Outage showed Vt.’s strengths, weaknesses

August 23, 2003
By STEVE COSTELLO

Last week’s power outages, which cascaded from the Midwest across the Northeast and into Canada, sending millions into a night of darkness, raised questions nationally about the ability of our country’s electricity grid to deliver reliable service. The fact that Vermont successfully prevented the cascading outages from punishing our state’s residents sheds an interesting light on Vermont Electric Power Company’s transmission system upgrades.

Since lights briefly flickered across Vermont Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Vermonters, along with media outlets across the country, have asked one simple question: “Why didn’t Vermont suffer the same fate as surrounding northeast states and Canada?”

The answer goes straight to the heart of the VELCO upgrade proposal: Vermont was well prepared, and everything came together nearly perfectly as the system and its operators struggled to preserve its integrity.

It almost wasn’t so. Vermonters narrowly escaped the same fate of tens of millions of others who were left in the dark. The outage highlighted the imperative nature of constant maintenance and improvement to the electrical system.

When problems arose, the system and the people who run it did exactly what they were supposed to do. From the VELCO ties with New York to the control centers of Central Vermont Public Service, Green Mountain Power, VELCO and other Vermont utilities, good engineering, well-maintained system protection equipment, experienced operators and a little bit of good fortune combined to head off potential disaster.

While system protections in state after state failed and local utilities lost control of their systems, Vermont’s transmission ties to New York opened up breakers and isolated us from the problem. Voltage dipped, sending hundreds of alarms off in control rooms statewide, but system operators scrambled immediately to restore stability by switching power routes, adjusting voltage and starting generators.

More than 300 alarms, most signaling low voltage on specific circuits, went off in the CVPS Control Center, where controller Joe Barbagallo was overseeing the system. Barbagallo immediately made several switches to control the system, and called in employees, including many who’d just left for the day, to standby at hydro stations and other facilities to operate them manually if necessary. Staff at CVPS, VELCO and the other utilities simultaneously worked to stabilize their parts of the grid.

Vermont’s diverse power mix and well-maintained transmission system were critical to keeping power flowing. Utility-owned generators, independent power plants, Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee helped maintain system stability as Vermont was isolated. The recent heavy rains also provided a benefit: high water levels allowed hydro facilities to power up quickly to complement the larger Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee supplies.

So didn’t last week’s events disprove the need for the VELCO improvements?

On the contrary – they made the case for them. Good planning, good engineering, good maintenance and good training, along with lots of rain and some luck, are what prevented a system failure. Failure by one protection device, one operator or one sensor could have changed the outcome completely. Lack of rain, and the generation it provided, could have also meant big trouble in Vermont.

The state has seen steady growth in power demand over the past several decades, despite energy efficiency efforts far exceeding those of most other states, but the state hasn’t made major transmission system upgrades to safely serve that demand going forward. The existing system was pushed to the limit when the outages swept across the country to Vermont’s border. It’s not a limit we should continually test.

We should be perfectly clear: efficiency efforts can continue to play a role in managing power demand and mitigating the need for generators and system expansion, but Vermont electricity consumers are at risk without major transmission system improvements.

One can certainly learn from one’s mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Folks across the Northeast and in Canada undoubtedly hope that happens in the coming weeks and months.

But one can also learn from one’s success, and in this case, the lesson is clear, if a bit cliché: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Just ask one of the millions of those who suffered through the blackout, estimated to have caused billions in lost economic activity and untold inconvenience, if they would support investing in their transmission system to avoid the potential of future power outages.

Vermont must take cost-effective, sensible steps to continually improve our electrical system to ensure high reliability today and tomorrow, and the proposed VELCO upgrades present the most responsible and affordable way to do so.

Steve Costello is director of public affairs for Central Vermont Public Service Corp.