While every indication is that the massive blackout across North America that left more than 50 million people without power was caused by a cascade of catastrophic events, it clearly showed that the North American power grid is extremely vulnerable. The chances are one in a million that a natural occurrence that could not be forecast, such as a lightning strike disabling major generation on a hot high-demand day, would destabilize the grid, but it did. Be it lightening at the right moment at the right time in the right conditions, or something more nefarious like a terrorist attack, the power supply here and in most parts of the world is vulnerable.
The Bottom Line: The outage would not have been propagated across such a wide area if information technology were used properly.
What It Means
Grid and plant operators had real-time visibility, but not alert notification and decision support. The move toward more interconnection in recent years did not cause this problem; in fact, greater availability of power from a greater number of sources has prevented more frequent localized outages. From an engineering standpoint, control systems performed as they were designed, protecting the grid and the attached equipment from an even more disastrous event. There was some orderly shutdown of power plants, so operators were able to see the destabilization. Areas that are heavily interconnected to the grid, such as New England, were not affected. Presumably, those operators were able to isolate their systems from the grid failure.
Investment should not stop at the grid; information technology is critical to maintaining reliability. The physical infrastructure is inadequate for the task of supporting growing pockets of energy demand. In fact, during these tight times, many companies, not just energy companies, have not paid enough attention to maintaining the performance of their existing assets.
While the government committed funds to update outdated physical infrastructure in response, information technology also makes the grid less vulnerable:
AMR Research originally published this article on 15 August 2003.