On August 14, 2003, transmission lines in Ohio drooped into trees, causing a chain reaction that resulted in a record blackout across the Northeastern United States and part of Canada, affecting more than 50 million customers.
Prompted in part by the blackout, the U.S. Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005, which included a statute that shifted responsibility for maintaining reliability in the electric grid from industry to the federal government. The legislation directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to oversee reliability in the nation’s bulk power system.
However, the statute did not articulate which facilities actually make up the U.S. bulk power system and, therefore, which facilities fall under FERC jurisdiction. To address this basic policy question, the agency invited a group of researchers led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Bernard Lesieutre to provide input.
The current rule of thumb for determining how important a facility is to the electric grid is guided by the voltage at the facility. Facilities with higher voltage levels are assumed to be more important to the electric grid.
Lesieutre’s team has developed an alternative, more nuanced model that evaluates how facilities are connected and the electrical properties of various networks. The new model generates a list that ranks power facilities in order of the effect on the overall electric grid if a particular facility goes offline. The team is working on the final report of its findings, which created grid-impact scenarios for more than 66,000 facilities located east of the Rocky Mountains, excluding facilities in Texas. “Even if FERC chooses not to adopt this approach, it’s a great project because we’re informing government by providing technical input. That’s what we as engineers should be doing,” says Lesieutre. “The structure of the electric energy industry has been going through fundamental changes in the last 20 years, and we need to be involved and cognizant of these changes.”