August 26, 2003
Publication:
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

The causes of the 2003 blackout are still being investigated and it is too soon to know what went wrong. From press accounts, it appears that the problems began somewhere in Ohio at least one hour before the blackouts when some major transmission lines began tripping out of service. (It is also possible that there may have been other contributing predisposing factors, such as oscillations among some generators in parts of the system or some other as yet undetermined conditions.) Among the many unanswered questions, we would like to add the following important questions for further investigation: Were the system operator’s hands tied by rules that hindered the operator from taking the most appropriate corrective actions in a timely manner? Would rules such as those followed in the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland (PJM) system have helped in preventing the blackout?

To support the case for investigating whether PJM-style rules might have assisted system operators in enhancing system reliability, we provide a brief overview of these rules and comment on the possible actions that can be taken by a system operator under these rules in response to overloads or potential overloads. We contrast the PJM-style rules with the rules prevalent in some other regions of the country (specifically, in Ohio). Our intent is not to place blame; indeed, if anything, our thesis is that the system operators in all regions of the country are highly skilled, but that they must be entrusted with better rules in order for them to effectively perform their jobs. In addition, the PJM-style rules are also market-oriented; the PJM system operation enables a well-functioning power market with real-time prices for power posted every 5 minutes, and permits generators that would rather schedule themselves to do so in response to these prices.

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