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Power Outage Study Team Examines Electricity Reliability

Collage of electricity images

During the summer of 1999, six major power outages and two serious electrical system disturbances throughout the United States led Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson to charter a group of experts to study what happened and how it could be prevented in the future. Berkeley Lab scientist Joe Eto was appointed to the panel. In March, the Power Outage Study Team (POST) sent the Secretary its final report. The POST study made 12 recommendations to Richardson and is the first to address the issues of electrical system reliability in a changing electrical power industry—restructuring has brought a choice of electrical suppliers to consumers in 24 states, along with the need to assure continued reliability under new market conditions. Eto, a scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division, coordinates multi-institutional research projects on the reliability of power systems in restructured markets through the Consortium for Electric Reliability Technology Solutions (CERTS). This Berkeley Lab-led consortium has brought together experts from national laboratories, universities, and the electric utility industry. A number of CERTS advisors served on POST with Eto and authored the team's final report. The team examined technical data from outages and incidents and held three technical workshops around the country to gather public comments.

"There is a wide expectation that competitive markets will bring new efficiencies and innovation to the marketplace, which will save customers money and lead to new services," says Eto. "But the mechanisms that protected electric reliability in the past need to be changed with the market's development."

The Secretary gave the POST report a positive reception. In a mid-March speech before the National League of Cities, which represents local government officials throughout the U.S., Richardson said, "While demand for electricity is soaring along with the use of computers, fax machines and other appliances in our homes, offices and factories, the reliability of our electric grid is, at times, faltering, mainly because policy makers haven't kept pace with rapid changes in the electric utility industry". Today's report can be a blueprint for how we will work together to keep the lights on and air conditioners running in America's cities this summer."

The POST study makes 12 recommendations about how the federal government can work with the electric utility industry to reduce power outages as the industry undergoes restructuring. It suggests, among other things, that the federal government promote market-based approaches to ensure reliable electric services; remove barriers to distributed energy resources (small-scale generation sources such as fuel cells, solar panels, small hydro sources, and diesel-powered generators); support reliability standards for bulk power systems; and encourage energy efficiency as a means of enhancing reliability. In his public comments, Richardson threw his support behind Congressional action to address reliability issues: "Federal electricity legislation is an essential component of the effort to help alleviate power outages this summer. Congress must move ahead to make changes in the federal statutory framework to provide the certainty that is needed to achieve reliable electric service in competitive wholesale and retail markets."

— Allan Chen

For more information, contact:

  • Joe Eto
  • (510) 486-7284; fax (510) 486-6996
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • Office of Policy, PO-1
  • 1000 Independence Ave., S.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20585
  • (202) 586-5316; fax: (202) 586-3047

The report is available online.

The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Policy.

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