Blackout 2003: Bush Rules Out Terrorism, Pledges Grid Review

NEW YORK, New York, August 15, 2003 (ENS) - As the largest blackout in North American history rolled across the Northeastern states and the Canadian province of Ontario, disrupting the lives of millions of people Thursday, President George W. Bush ruled out terrorism as a possible cause for the power failure.

Speaking in San Diego, California last night, the President said, "One thing I think I can say for certain is that this was not a terrorist act."

Once power has been restored, Bush said he plans to order a review of the nation's power grid to find out why the power outages were so widespread causing nine U.S. nuclear power plants and 12 non-nuclear U.S. power plants to shut down within a three minute period at 4:15 EDT Thursday afternoon.

Cities from New York, Cleveland and Detroit, to Toronto and Ottawa in Canada, were affected during a heat wave, and people were left without air conditioning, lights, transportation or refrigeration.


President George W. Bush said the blackout was not the result of terrorist action. (Photo courtesy The White House)
"One of the things we'll have to do, of course, is take an assessment of why the cascade was so significant, why it was able to ripple so significantly throughout our system up east," the President said.

According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, the areas most affected by outages included the Great Lakes, Michigan, Ohio, New York City, Ontario, Quebec, northern New Jersey, western Massachusetts and southwest Connecticut.

The experiences gained during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have been useful in coping with this power failure, said the President. "We're better organized today than we were two and a half years ago to deal with an emergency, and the system responded well. Secretary [Tom] Ridge was telling me 30 minutes ago how quickly the local authorities responded and how good the communications were between the federal government, the state government, the local government."

But people caught in the blackout wanted only to see the lights come on again. Hundreds of commuters bedded down on the floor at New York's Grand Central Station waiting through the night for commuter train service to resume, and hundreds more stretched out on the streets outside the station in pitch darkness.

All major airlines struggled to deal with the power failure as New York's La Guardia and Kennedy airports, and Detroit International Airport had intermittant power and flights today, and some 400 flights were cancelled. Stranded passengers camped out at airports and tried to make the best of a frustrating situation.


This morning New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged city residents to remain calm, stay home and turn off appliances. (Photo courtesy Office of the Mayor)
Just before midnight Thursday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham declared an emergency and directed the New York and New England Independent System Operators to activate, if necessary, the Cross Sound Cable connecting Shoreham, Long Island and New Haven, Connecticut. This order will allow power to flow on the Cross Sound Cable between the two states.

"I hereby determine that an emergency exists due to a shortage of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the generation of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the transmission of electric energy and other causes, and that issuance of this order will alleviate the emergency and serve the public interest," Abraham said.

The Cross Sound Cable is a high voltage, direct current buried submarine cable system connecting the electric transmission grids of New England and Long Island, New York, considered one of the worst bottleneck areas in the power grid. The line was permitted and built nearly two years ago, but has not been operating due to an ongoing court battle over the environmental impact of the cable to the marine environment of New Haven Harbor and the Long Island Sound.

Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection have established that operation of the cable poses no environmental impact. But in June 2002 the state of Connecticut established a moratorium on cable and pipeline crossings of Long Island Sound, and although the Cross Sound Cable was exempted, the state has been successful in preventing the cable from starting operations, until today.

Abraham said, "Activation of this 330 megawatt cable will help stabilize voltage between the two states and enable electricity to flow quickly when the generation system is operable, reducing the time needed for full restoration and reliable operation of the electric system." The cable will allow electricity to flow in either direction between Long Island and Connecticut as needed.

As of 5:30 this morning EDT, the New York State Independent System Operator (NYISO) and the state’s utility companies had restored 56 percent of the state load, and millions of customers had power.

New York City still has significant outages, and Long Island has been restored to most of its power needs. With temperatures in the 90s today, some disruptions in service to various parts of the state could still occur, the NYISO said.

A major transmission line between New York and Pennsylvania was brought back online soon after the disturbance occurred yesterday. Major interconnections with all neighboring states and provinces have been re-established as well, the system operator said.

The NYISO is asking New Yorkers to avoid all non-essential use of electricity until the system has been completely restored. The power situation continues to be severe today, because of the hot weather and system conditions.

ISO New England, the operator of the region's bulk power system and wholesale power exchange, issued a power watch this morning for Connecticut and is appealing to consumers in that region to conserve energy.

"The situation in Connecticut will be under a power watch until further notice," said Stephen Whitley, Chief Operating Officer of ISO New England Inc. "We do not anticipate problems in other parts of New England. Power has been restored to a majority of the customers affected by the blackout in Connecticut."

New York

Tonight the lights are on again in New York's world famous Times Square. (Photo courtesy City of New York)
"New England's operators and field staff did a tremendous job working through the night to restore power to a majority of customers in Connecticut and portions of Western Massachusetts and Western Vermont," Whitley said. "About two-thirds of those areas blacked out yesterday were restored within two and a half hours."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has announced a probe of the massive power failure. Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, told committee investigators Friday to start gathering information about the blackout. "While deeply troubling, it is not especially surprising to me that there has been a failure of a major North American power grid," Tauzin said.

"Yesterday's massive blackouts - the worst in American history - highlight the critical need for Congress to enact a comprehensive national energy bill this year," he said.

Tauzin said his committee will hold a hearing when Congress returns to work in early September. Those invited to testify include - Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham; Pat Wood III, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; New York Governor George Pataki; and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"If Congress does absolutely nothing, these latest blackouts offer us an eerie, unsettling peek into the future," Tauzin said. "Businesses shut down. Passengers stuck on subway cars. People walking home or sleeping on sidewalks. The only sure way to prevent this nightmare from occurring time and time again, in cities all across America, is to modernize and improve our outdated energy policies. My goal is to have a strong energy bill on the President Bush's desk for his signature before Thanksgiving."

Environmental and consumers organizations are calling for a smarter U.S. energy policy in the aftermath of the massive blackout, but not necessarily the energy bill that has been stalled in Congress.

Katherine Morrison, Clean Energy Advocate for the state Public Interest Research Groups said, "We should use our technological know-how to increase energy efficiency and conservation, shift to clean, renewable energy sources, and put a premium on smaller local power sources with more local control.

"Our electricity system is most vulnerable on hot summer days due to massive energy consumption by air conditioners," Morrison said, recommending increased efficiency of air conditioners.

"Unfortunately, in May 2002, the Bush administration weakened a new rule that would have increased air conditioner efficiency by 30 percent. If the rule had gone forward, by 2030 energy saved by more efficient air conditioners would be the equivalent of 65 power plants," Morrison said.

Officials with Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think-tank in Colorado, said the power failure is "a wake-up call to decision makers." America's existing system is based on 100 years of heavily centralized generation and distribution policies that "can trigger a cascading series of errors that leaves us vulnerable and should be corrected," said Kyle Datta, managing director of Rocky Mountain Institute's consulting practice.

fuel cells

The Long Island Power Authority has installed 75 stationary fuel cells and connected them to the power grid. (Photo courtesy Long Island Power Authority)
While acknowledging that the cause of the blackout is still unclear, Datta says the reason the New York system power failure cascaded across to New England, Canada and the Midwest, was that all the systems were heavily loaded with high electrical demand and near capacity.

"The centralized architecture of the large interconnected power systems is one of the United States' biggest vulnerabilities," said Datta.

Morrison agrees. "This is a teachable moment," she said, "that should remind us that, as we update our electric system we must strive for a nimbler, less cumbersome system. We need a system that recognizes the economic value of conservation and efficiency and puts an emphasis on smaller, more local generation sources that do not rely on fossil fuels."

The solution, Datta said, is distributed generation architecture - placing smaller, modular, diverse, and redundant electrical devices spread across the grid close to the load they serve.

Energy sources such as fuel cells, combined heat and power, solar panels and micro-turbines can provide power at lower cost and greater reliability than the centralized power grid, Datta explained. The distributed energy sources can be organized into modules, such as power parks, that can isolate themselves from the system when necessary, he said.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Abraham and New York Governor George Pataki today advised people in the areas affected by the blackout to help ensure the stability of the system by reducing energy use as their electricity comes back on line.

"We continue to urge all New Yorkers to do everything possible to conserve energy throughout the day," the governor said. "By avoiding the use of all unnecessary electrical equipment and appliances we help to ensure that all areas of the state receive the power they need as quickly as possible."