The U.S. transmission grid was under great stress in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One big reason for this was that the number of transactions in the newly competitive wholesale power market was getting out of hand.
“Before the wholesale market opened for competition, TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority], used to schedule 20 transactions a month for wholesale electricity moving across their system,” said NRECA’s Dave Mohre in late 2003. “Now TVA schedules some 2,000 transactions every day.”
Situations like that, along with a lack of investment in new transmission lines and poor communication between the regional independent system operators whose job it is to monitor and manage power flow, produced the Northeast Blackout of 2003.
More than 50 million consumers lost power late in the afternoon of August 14 that year. The outages stretched from Massachusetts to Michigan and up into the Canadian province of Ontario. New York City subway trains stopped running for four hours, stranding thousands of homebound commuters.
Allen Thurgood, general manager of 1st Rochdale Cooperative, an NRECA member at the time (the only one serving a major city), rode down an elevator in Manhattan in time to see traffic lights on the street corner blink off. He learned what was up from someone listening to a Chicago radio station on a boom box.
The blackout’s proximate cause was a software bug in the alarm system of the control room of First Energy, an investor-owned utility based in Akron, Ohio, leaving the operators unaware that an overloaded transmission line had drooped and made contact with foliage.
Buckeye Power, the closest generation and transmission co-op, noticed something strange at about 4:05 p.m.
“As we were approaching a peak-demand time, we saw our load drop,” Director of Operations Herb Caldwell recalled at the time.
Looking further, he saw that the northeastern third of the state, including Akron and Cleveland, had no power.
“Our generation was still online and operating. But about 10 percent of our total system load went offline,” he said, referring to eight distribution co-ops serving some 35,000 consumers.
Caldwell started calling co-ops.
“Every line was busy. That indicated their customers were calling to report they had no power.”
He then called American Electric Power and discovered Buckeye Power was on the western edge of a huge blackout.
AEP and Dayton Power & Light (now AES Ohio) provided transmission for all the power the G&T delivered to 24 co-ops in Ohio and one in Michigan from two coal-fired power plants near Steubenville, Ohio. That hot, muggy August afternoon, Buckeye was at the mercy of the two investor-owned utilities to insulate it from the blackout.
“To their credit, they took steps to keep their utilities [largely] out of the cascading troubles,” he said.
Mohre said at the time that the Northeast Blackout of 2003 that impact of a decade of wholesale competition in the industry was partly to blame.
“Many IOU executives will not build new transmission lines that would allow competitors to come into their territory and undercut their own generation.”
Uncertainty about who would own new lines left many utilities “unwilling…to invest money at their members’ or customers’ expense and risk losing their investment,” added Don Kimball, then-CEO of Arizona Electric Power Cooperative.
Rick Coons, then-COO of Wabash Valley Power Alliance in Indianapolis summed up the lesson of the blackout succinctly: “We need to slow down and take care of reliability.”