DETROIT — Spencer Abraham, secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), and Herb Dhaliwal, Minister of Canadian Natural Resources, met here Aug. 20 to launch their co-chaired joint task force, “to look into exactly how this blackout occurred and why it spread to such a large area, and to identify ways to keep such an event from happening again,” Abraham said.

The blackout shut down large parts of New York, New England, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario Aug. 14-15, 2003.

The investigation officially began just before the press briefing Aug. 20. “We want to get a complete and accurate picture of what happened,” said Abraham, and then take steps to correct problems and, ultimately, improve grid reliability.

“It is important that we come together and find out what could cause such a problem,” Dhaliwal said. He stated that all electrical transmission systems are built for containment, which makes it still more important to figure out why the grid’s transmission problems cascaded out of control.

Neither Abraham nor Dhaliwal would speculate on a specific cause of the blackout before the task force has completed gathering, analyzing, and reviewing data being gathered by the task force from utility sources, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), and Independent System Owners (ISOs).

(An outline of the first two phases of the task force’s plans is provided in the sidebar below.)

The Demand Side

Theories behind the cause of the blackout, said Dhaliwal, include stress on the system, technical problems, and human error. After these are studied, the task force may respond by recommending new investments in the infrastructure and enforceable, mandatory standards for utilities. “The first step is to find out the cause,” he said.

“Our goal is to figure out what happened last week,” said Abraham. “Load demand is a broader, separate issue.” It will remain in the discussion of the blackout events as part of the problem.

“It’s no surprise that the U.S. and Canada are the biggest energy pigs on the planet,” stated one reporter, who asked, “Why is there no talk of energy conservation?”

Dhaliwal admitted that in Canada there is room for improvement in this respect. He said that he had an energy audit performed on his own home and found areas where improvements are possible.

Abraham surprised the roomful of reporters when he said that over the next 25 years, the DOE projects a 65 percent increase in electricity demands. Conservation and efficiency improvements will offset up to two-thirds of this, but that improvements in the infrastructure are also necessary.

Both Abraham and Dhaliwal expressed their gratitude for the way American and Canadian citizens handled the outage, and compassion for the hardships that were endured.

The task force will include U.S. members Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security; Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Nils J. Diaz, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Canadian members John Manley, Deputy Prime Minister, in his capacity as Minister responsible for Border and Security Issues; Kenneth Vollman, chairman of the National Energy Board; and Linda J. Keen, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Sidebar: Canada-U.S. Power Outage Task Force Outline

Phase I — Fact-Finding Phase:
  • What happened on Aug. 14, 2003, to cause the transmission system to fail, resulting in the power outage? Why did it happen?

  • Why wasn’t the system able to stop the spread of the outage?

    This phase will involve:

    Electric System Working Group — Cochaired by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the DOE on the U.S. side, and on the Canadian side by Natural Resources Canada. It will also include a senior representative of all affected states and provinces. This working group will develop a complete reconstruction of events surrounding the power outages and identify reasons why the system failed.

    Security Working Group — Chaired by the Department of Homeland Security on the U.S. side and a representative for the Government of Canada, this will include a senior representative of all affected states and provinces. This working group will develop a complete account of all security events that may have contributed to the power outage.

    Nuclear Working Group — Chaired by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, this will include a senior representative of all affected states and provinces. This working group will identify all relevant actions by nuclear generating facilities in connection with the outage.

    Phase II — Recommendations:

  • How do we prevent future power outages?

    The task force will evaluate all information produced as a result of the fact-finding phase. Members of the task force or their representatives will meet with appropriate state and local officials and seek their advice and recommendations. The task force will also seek the individual input of relevant ISOs or other parties.

    After receiving the information it needs, the task force will develop a report containing the results of its investigation and whatever recommendations it determines are appropriate to prevent future outages in both the short and long term, for the system as a whole.

    Publication date: 09/01/2003