Philosophical Society of Washington

Electric Power Reliability

The August 14, 2003 Electric Power Blackout: Why did it happen, what did we learn, and where do we go from here?

Will Grant
MPR Associates

2176th Meeting Abstract
Friday, April 2, 2004 at 8:15 PM


Just after 4:00 pm EDT on August 14 2003, an electric power blackout affected the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States and the Canadian Province of Ontario. The affected areas have a population of 50 million people and an electric demand of 60,000 megawatts (MW). Power was re-established to some customers almost immediately, but it took up to two days to restore power to all affected customers in the United States. In parts of Ontario, there were rolling blackouts for more than a week before normal service was restored. Naturally no one wants to experience any like this again and there is great interest and debate over exactly what to do to prevent another regional blackout.

This talk will begin with a primer of power systems to provide a basis for understanding the issues. This will be followed by an overview of the major blackouts in the US prior to August 14, 2004; a list of the actions taken over the past 35 years to improve power grid reliability, a timeline of the events on August 14, 2003 (prior to, during, and immediately following the uncontrollable cascading collapse of the power grid) and an update on the aftermath. The talk will conclude with a review of the pros and cons of proposed corrective actions, e.g., transmission grid system upgrades, more conservation, or a shift towards distributed generation.

About the Author:

Willard S. Grant is an Associate of MPR Associates, Inc., an engineering firm in Alexandria, VA. He holds a B. S. in Electrical Engineering (1967) and a B. A. in Political Science (1967) from Union College, Schenectady, NY. Mr. Grant's professional focus is on electric power. For more than 40 years, he has studied and worked on all forms of electric generation and has tackled power problems worldwide. For the last 15 years he has actively participated in the ups and downs of our national journey towards deregulation of the electricity industry. The end is still a ways off and we must expect more detours, but Mr. Grant is looking forward to helping us eventually reach the goal.

Mr. Grant is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and a former President of the Philosophical Society of Washington (1992).

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