Inside Energy: Blackout, part 1

May 18, 2015

If you could peer behind an electrical plug in your house… you’d find a massive network of transmission lines and power plants and a whole army of people bringing power to the socket, in real-time, 24 hours a day. It’s the largest machine in the world: the power grid. And most of the time it operates invisibly, in the background. But what happens when it fails?

In the first story of an Inside Energy series we’re calling Blackout: Reinventing the Grid, Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce brings us a story of the lights going out.

I was nine years old in January 1998, when the rain turned to ice.

“I remember waking up in the night and hearing explosions outside.”

That’s my mom, Lynn Shepherd.

 “When the top of a tree comes off and it just splinters, the snapping is really an explosion. It’s like a gunshot.”

We lived in a town called Canton in upstate New York, near the Canadian border--a place known for its brutal winters. But overnight, the storm devastated the entire region. Three inches of ice coated everything. When the sun rose...

“You just saw a tangle of branches and power lines, crisscrossing the street outside our apartment.”

Not a single power pole was still standing. Our lights didn’t work, neither did the heat or the stove. We had no connection at all to the outside world except a small, battery-powered radio… which passed along news like this, from then-Governor George Pataki.

“This is the largest response for a storm of this nature that the state has ever had…”

Four million people without power, in the dead of winter. The reporters said the huge, steel towers carrying the transmission lines had doubled over under the weight of the ice, as though they had been punched in the gut.

“It made the system seem very vulnerable…”

That’s a feeling many Americans have had in the last 15 years… in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the 2003 blackout in the northeast--which was the largest in our nation’s history… Those seem like isolated events… but Massoud Amin says when you step back and look at the trend, they’re not.

“The rate of these outages have increased dramatically every five years.”

Amin is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota and his research shows major power outages have been on the rise since the 1980s--even as we’ve become increasingly reliant on electricity for every aspect of our lives. Amin says now, we’re at a critical juncture. The grid is old and falling apart. It’s threatened by more frequent severe weather and new demands from technology and renewable power.

“The existing system is vulnerable to a wide range of disasters, natural disasters, intentional attacks…”

But until very recently, few people were even paying attention to large-scale grid reliability. The federal government STILL doesn’t require all utilities to track and share reliability data with the public.

If you want to find out how reliable the power is in your state or community, you have to do what Inside Energy has been doing for the last few months--request the data from your public utilities commission--if they even collect it--and then muddle through huge data sets, often in unusable formats.

And Amin says if we don’t know how bad reliability is, it’s hard to persuade the government and utilities to spend money to fix the problems.

“The word hasn’t gone out there to the real stakeholders, the people of our nation.”

And Amin says the problems are only becoming more urgent.

“I don't want to be a senior citizen and live in the dark. So it's personal.”

For the two weeks our power was out during the ice storm of ‘98, basic things like drying clothes and making food became monumental tasks. My mom says that got her thinking.

“Having to sit in your window and contemplate just the magnitude of devastation around you, it just gives you pause to think about should you be on the grid or not?”

Back then the choice was black and white--on or off. But today, the grid itself is being reinvented - by new technologies that change the way we produce, distribute and use electricity. But that reinvention can only happen if we all pay a little bit more attention to this massive energy infrastructure...… and not only when we find ourselves in the dark.