Five Years After Blackout: Electric Grid Still Vulnerable

Not everyone is so sanguine. Harrison Clark, a longtime electricity consultant believes that another blackout is a certainty. "It's just a too big and complex of a machine to have things not go wrong," he said. "The question is will it be on the scale of the northeast blackout in 2003. Is there less chance? Probably there is."

Indeed, key problems remain. A growing population and boom in the use of electronics is projected to keep demand - and therefore the need for infrastructure - soaring. The expansion of renewable energies may also require added transmission lines, particularly because most of those resources, such as wind, are located in far flung areas without adequate infrastructure. And these developments will likely face local or other opposition, experts say.

Peak demands are also expected to exceed resources across many regions in just a few years, NERC's annual report last year noted. Part of the problem, the report stated is "a focus solely on short-term planning does not result in the efficient design and construction of the grid of the future."

And that development comes at a hefty cost. The Edison Electric Institute, an association of private utilities projects that demand will increase 30 percent by 2030 and will require an estimated $1.5 trillion investment.

Indeed, a recent NERC survey of industry professionals put aging infrastructure and limited new construction as "the number one challenge to reliability – both in likelihood of occurrence and potential severity."

Changes in the industry have also put more strain on transmission lines. New technology and a more competitive and larger market of utility companies means that power is often generated far from the consumers. As a result, more electricity has to travel farther along the transmission lines to reach consumers, which lowers the excess power capacity along these lines and gives operators a smaller margin of error in the event of even a small outage or problem, experts say.

Other concerns remain. Outages caused by vegetation growing into transmission lines still occur with more frequency that regulators would like. An aging workforce has raised questions about finding trained replacements in time, the report noted.

And, FERC Chair Joseph Kelliher said that current regulation does not provide enough protection for regulators to act quickly enough against cyber crime.

What's more, even though everyone views the new regulatory scheme as a positive step, they do not solve everything. "The standards themselves aren't always black and white," Clark said."It's not a perfect science."

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