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How one power grid kept lights on

Hydro-Quebec's system, too, is imperfect
But its unique safeguards helped it survive blackout

Toronto Star - September 8, 2003
by M. Corey Goldman — Special to the Star


MONTREAL — Fingers continued to point and wag last week over who and what caused the largest electrical blackout in North American history August 14, 2003. In the frying pan at two days of U.S. congressional hearings was FirstEnergy chief executive H. Peter Burg, whose Ohio-based utility has so far taken the brunt of the heat.

Not many fingers were pointed at Quebec, but when the dust settles they will be. When the blood is let and authorities begin exploring prevention strategies, Quebec is likely to loom large.

Its experience August 14 was one of triumph — Quebec, as everyone knows, stayed up. But behind that basic fact is a complex story, with failures too, from which much was learned and applied over many years.

"Hydro-Quebec has invested a lot of money to implement new mechanisms to protect our system and ensure it complies with the rest of the northeast," said Yves Filion, president of Hydro-Quebec TransEnergie, the utility's transmission division.

In an interview Friday, Filion sounded an even, matter-of-fact tone about the recent electrical storm. "We have technologies and expertise that are unique to our own system and we have offered to make those available to other regions if they want it."

Quebec's power is the product of broad policy and particular technology. These have made the province a virtual powerhouse of generating, transmission, and trouble-shooting expertise, in good times and — as the ice-storm proved — bad, too.

Hydro-Quebec has resisted the worldwide trend toward breaking up and privatizing state-owned utilities. It is the only region in North America that relies almost solely on rushing water to produce electricity.

Over almost two decades — admittedly amid much controversy — it has built one of the world's largest and most complex hydroelectric power generating systems in and around the James Bay region in North-central Quebec. This has been a massive undertaking, presenting many roadblocks, the crossing of which appears to have helped build strength into the system.

For instance, James Bay is some 1,000 kilometres from any populated centre. At lot can happen between one end and the other. So the utility had to devise a way to get power safely and securely to the majority of its population, not to mention skeptical export customers. To do so, Hydro-Quebec became the first in the world to install electrical buffers, or valves, that shorten the distance that electricity travels in power lines and keep it stable.

The system is unusual. Most of North America uses electricity in what is called alternating current, or AC format. Hydro-Quebec has chosen a hybrid.

In operation AC reverses direction constantly — at about 60 cycles per second when used as household current in the United States.

In Quebec, because much of its power is produced so far from where it is consumed, engineers found it difficult to both keep its internal system stable and keep its James Bay generators in line with the rest of the northeast using the AC format. The answer was to covert the power at various points from generation to distribution into what is called direct current, or DC format, where electricity flows in one direction, like power from a battery.

To both export and import power, Hydro-Quebec built shopping centre-sized sub-stations where they installed electric buffers, or valves, that convert AC power to DC and back to AC — what officials call "back-to-back" valves that take in one kind of current, convert it, convert it back to its original current and send it on its way.

What resulted over many years and many upgrades was a system that was very expensive to build and very different from the rest of North America, but also, because of its buffers and valves, is very stable and secure relative to other utility companies, according to experts.

Last month, when something, somewhere caused more than 50 million people to lose power in a matter of seconds, those upgrades and mechanisms kicked in, saving the province from plunging into darkness.

That's likely what power authorities in the affected areas will now dissect.

"We're looking at what occurred and saying, `Okay, we have to figure out how to get to the bottom of this,' " said Francis Bradley, a spokesperson with the Canadian Electricity Association in Toronto, an industry group that represents the utility companies.

"We want to make sure there is discussion about the need for investment in infrastructure over the long term and we want to see some mandatory standards with legislative authority."

Still, even those looking to Quebec's self-contained system and its ability to backstop the blackout aren't convinced the province has something every other utility should have. Not every utility has to worry about transporting power from thousands of kilometres away and spending additional capital and resources to ensure it gets from A to B. Other states and provinces that generate from nuclear, gas, coal and other sources transport power over shorter distances. They can monitor their systems without the need for valves that convert the power into different formats.

There are benefits to being connected to the grid too, as Quebec found out the hard way after the 1998 ice storms when its power lines snapped like toothpicks and it could not pull in enough reserve power from the outside to keep the lights on. Quebec's self-contained system crosses the border at only five points — not enough to power the province if it's in serious trouble.

And while deregulation has increased competition and lowered prices for consumers, it has slowed the pace of modernization of the grid. That's because private firms that offer local power services do not have enough incentives — voluntary or forced — to upgrade their transmission links and update the computer systems they use to balance local loads and make the grid work harmoniously.

Deregulation has created a culture where some of these standards and rules are being ignored, because the objectives are now to make a profit, and strengthening the network to make the system more reliable is an expense," said Francisco Galiana, an electrical engineering professor with McGill University and an expert in power systems.

"It's the same old story: How much do you spend to render your system more stable, more secure, more reliable, considering these outages only happen once every 10 years?"

Others don't blame deregulation so much as utilities that don't follow the rules — standards that are already in place but that have come under scrutiny because there is no governing body to enforce them, according to Bruce Campbell, a vice president with the Independent Electricity Market Operator, or IMO, which is responsible for the day-to-day operation of Ontario's electrical system, including Hydro One.

"We have the advantage of obtaining support from our neighbours when it's needed or sharing resources on a longer-term basis, which is a lot more cost effective than building and maintaining our own," Campbell said. "The price you pay for that is that you have to be connected to people who take the same kind of care in terms of reliability that we do."

But that doesn't always happen, as a growing number of utility operators and regulators are finding out. This is why the IMO and other organizations are calling on the U.S. Congress to pass one of two energy bills currently on the table, both of which contain clauses that would give the North American Electricity Reliability Council, or NERC, more authority to monitor and sanction companies that bend the rules.

Separate bills introduced into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives include mandatory electricity reliability standards, which the power industry says are critical.

Most of the witnesses who made their way to Capitol Hill last week also urged lawmakers to pass measures that would help encourage the development of the transmission grid.

"We would like to see the council given some teeth," said the Canadian Electricity Association's Bradley. "It has done an excellent job but it requires some mandatory standards. The only thing missing is legislative authority."

On this side of the border at least, experts note that whether private operators like it or not, an international council with authority to impose tougher rules for power companies could adapt some of Hydro-Quebec's more expensive initiatives.

"In a way, even if we didn't have this direct, back-to-back current, we wouldn't have necessarily lost power anyway," noted Hydro-Quebec TransEnergie's Filion. "Our systems are separated from the rest and we would probably have been able to maintain the equilibrium between load and demand."

But others disagree, noting that in most cases, if a generator goes off-line on the connected grid, the slack is picked up instantaneously by every other generator in the Eastern interconnect — a system the IMO's Campbell believes works best and can work even better if someone with autonomy can monitor and enforce the rules that govern it.

Either way, most agree it will take a long time to figure out what went wrong, never mind how to fix it.

"It was absolutely nothing extraordinarily dramatic that caused it, which is very worrying," said McGill's Galiana.

"The thing to determine in this investigation is whether electricity operators were operating outside the limits. Unless we wake up and start reinforcing the network and providing enough reserve and smart mechanisms to suppress these cascading outages, it will keep happening. Something will have to change to ensure that it doesn't."


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