Figliola: Unheeded lessons of the 2003 blackout

Cars try to navigate their way through New Cars try to navigate their way through New York City during a blackout that hit U.S. and Canadian cities. Photo Credit: AP, 2003

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It was a traumatic event that plunged 50 million people in the United States and Canada into darkness. On a hot summer afternoon 10 years ago this week, a cascading series of failures on the electric grid left parts of New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ontario without power.

What created all this mayhem? An overloaded and aging power line in Ohio that was knocked down by trees with too much foliage.

FirstEnergy Corp., the utility that owned the line, had a computer system to alert the company should this scenario arise. But due to a system glitch, the alarm never sounded.

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a catastrophic failure of our energy infrastructure. It had an impact on our economy and public safety, and led to roughly 100 deaths, according to a study published in the journal Epidemiology. Countless people were stuck in elevators, stranded on subway cars or forced to navigate their way home without stop lights and in complete darkness.

After the blackout, the United States and Canada formed the U.S.-Canada Power System Task Force to provide utility companies with information and recommendations to prevent another large-scale blackout. Some of the problems identified by the task force's 2006 report have been addressed, but more work is needed to improve the grid's resilience.

A key recommendation was for utilities to upgrade and use a smart grid system. This automated system would allow for two-way communication and reduce the occurrence and degree of blackouts by rerouting power, if necessary. The task force estimated the cost to install a smart grid system throughout the entire country at $338 billion to $476 billion over the next 20 years.

Due to the high cost, so far only Florida Power & Light Co. has completed a full-scale smart grid system, at a price of $800 million. A major reason for FPL's investment was $200 million in government stimulus funds it received in 2009.

In New York, the Independent System Operator, which oversees power delivery in the state, has been advocating since the blackout for New York to get serious about smart grid technology. In 2011, it launched a $75-million statewide initiative to install sensors on power lines to detect disruptions, with $37 million from the Department of Energy. While laudable, this is a minimal response. Larger-scale investments must be made to update our electricity system.

Superstorm Sandy, which left huge swaths of Long Island, New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut without power for weeks, reignited interest in the smart grid. As the Northeast rebuilds and tremendous amounts of money are poured into disaster preparedness, we have an unprecedented opportunity to address the region's electrical problems again.

After superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene, business owners learned power outages can mean major losses in revenue and, in some cases, business closures. But some politicians do not seem fully aware of how fragile the grid is until a massive storm hits.

If a string of 100-degree days rolls in, there is very little we can do to prevent another blackout. More than 20,000 Long Islanders were affected by outages during July's heat wave. While the federal government is spending billions investing in various start-up businesses, such as Solyndra, that have not worked, our existing energy infrastructure is becoming obsolete.

It is vitally important that our federal and state elected leaders focus on this problem and allocate more of the critical dollars needed to help strengthen our energy infrastructure.

Anthony Figliola is the vice president of Empire Government Strategies, an economic development firm based in Uniondale.

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