The “vast majority” of customers that lost power as a result of the massive wave of electrical outages that hit the Northeast, Great Lakes and eastern Canada on Thursday were being returned to service Friday, the head of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) said at the end of the week.

On Friday, NERC was reporting that around 48,800 MW of the approximately 61,800 MW lost as a result of the blackouts was back on. That 61,800 MW figure probably equates to roughly 10% of the entire Eastern Interconnection at the time of the outages, noted Michehl Gent, the CEO of NERC.

Gent noted that the nuclear power plants and fossil-fired units in both countries that were knocked offline as a result of the cascading blackouts did what they were designed to do — “that is that they were designed to come offline in this manner to protect the units themselves,” he said.

But, “when we designed this system to work this way, we never anticipated that we would have a cascading outage,” Gent said. “In fact, NERC was formed for that exact purpose after the 1965 blackout to prevent this kind of outage from happening.”

For additional details on the 1965 outage and more recent blackouts, click on the following link:

Gent said Friday that the Lake Erie loop, which moves power between the U.S. and Canada, has become the “center of focus” in the nascent investigation into the wave of blackouts.

“I hesitate to say that’s the cause, but that’s the center of focus,” Gent said in a conference call with reporters at the end of the week. “You’re probably aware that this has been a problem for years and there have been all sorts of plans to try to be able to make this a more reliable thing, with cables under Lake Erie….and none of that has come to fruition.”

Gent said that the transmission path around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario “has always been a big, big problem, and we’ve tried all sorts of technical innovations to make that easier on the operators, but that will turn out to be an issue here.”

The Lake Erie loop cuts through New York along the southern frontier over to Detroit “and then back up through that little neck into Canada and then back around Niagara Falls” and down into the U.S., Gent noted. “If you have transaction from say the Detroit or Midwest area to let’s say New York City, then a good amount of that goes up and around the northern part of the lake,” he said.

“In this case, prior to the incident, the flow was probably” about 300 MW going from west to east, he said. “And then as the events, whatever they were, unfolded that power reversed itself and I think we ended up with at least 500 [MW] going the other way.” Gent noted that there were “lots of intermediate steps and fluctuations that went along with that, but this was a big swing back and forth on top of Lake Erie.”

He said that the entire loop on Thursday had what he referred to as an “oscillating power phenomena.” The initial event then caused additional lines to go out of service as well as major fossil and nuclear power plants.”

Gent argued that NERC has been successful in its overall mission over the last approximately 40 years. “There have been a couple of outages. Most of you are familiar with the one in the West in 1996 and then there was another one in New York City in 1977.”

Thursday’s string of outages which appeared to start at 4:11 p.m. in the Great Lakes area, affected approximately 50 million people, covered an area of somewhere in the neighborhood of around 9,300 square miles and, Gent estimates, impacted about 15 million customers, using “some very rough math.”

“All of our efforts now are concentrated on restoration,” said Gent, in a conference call. “We think it’s vitally important to get everybody back in service and then our efforts will turn to investigation and, assuming we can conduct a proper investigation, we’ll then turn to preventing this from ever happening again.”

NERC said that the areas most affected center around the Great Lakes, Michigan, Ohio, New York City, Ontario, Quebec, northern New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. “The most affected areas are the large cities, and you’ve probably heard about New York City and Cleveland and Detroit and so on,” Gent told an audience of listeners that surpassed 700.

“Right now, we think that the vast majority of customers without electricity will be returned to service by the end of the day,” Gent said on Friday. “We’re looking at Detroit as a particular problem area,” he said. By the end of the day most fossil-fired generation had been returned to service. NERC estimates that as many as 80 fossil-fired power plants may have come offline as a result of the power disruptions. Most of the nuclear plants — which take longer to restart — were expected to come up over the weekend.

The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) said that more than half of the state’s power load had been restored by Friday morning, but the ISO initiated a emergency demand response program that could require the state’s utilities to impose rolling blackouts in areas of high customer demand. Temperatures were expected to peak in the low 90s Friday in New York City, according to the National Weather Service.

The NYISO said that with some generating facilities still were not back in service across the state, there is not enough power to support customer demand to run air conditioners on the hot summer day. Although some utilities have restored service to all of their customers, they still may have to impose controlled outages.

In coordination with the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), FirstEnergy Corp. announced that, to protect the integrity of the regional electrical system, it would have to impose two-hour rolling blackouts in the Cleveland area, affecting about 125,000 customers. FirstEnergy said as of Friday morning it had restored power to one million of the 1.4 million customers in northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

In New England, the regional ISO issued a power watch for Connecticut and appealed to consumers in that region to conserve energy. The call for conservation came as a result of the loss of a major power line in southwestern Connecticut that failed during efforts to restore power after the massive blackout struck.

“The situation in Connecticut will be under a power watch until further notice,” said Stephen G. Whitley, COO of ISO New England Inc. “We do not anticipate problems in other parts of New England. Power has been restored to a majority of the customers affected by the blackout in Connecticut.”

In addition to the calls for conservation, the federal Department of Energy authorized the use of the 330 MW Cross-Sound cable that connects Long Island with southern Connecticut. “I hereby determine that an emergency exists due to a shortage of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the generation of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the transmission of electric energy and other causes, and that issuance of this order will alleviate the emergency and serve the public interest,” Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said in an emergency order issued late Thursday allowing for activation of the line.

Cross Sound Cable Co. on Friday afternoon said that the transmission line was energized and that power was flowing over the cable. The cable is also providing voltage stabilization services to the Long Island and Connecticut transmission grids.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said that it continued to monitor nine nuclear power plants shut down Thursday afternoon due to grid instabilities. “All the plants are in a stable, safe condition,” the federal agency said.

The nine affected plants are: FitzPatrick, Ginna, Indian Point Units 2 and 3 and Nine Mile Point Units 1 and 2 in New York; Oyster Creek in New Jersey; Perry in Ohio; and Fermi in Michigan. The NRC said that safety systems at all the shutdown plants operated successfully, and plants stabilized in a safe shutdown condition and that adequate safety was maintained at all times.

A spokesman for Constellation Energy, which operates the Nine Mile generators said the units would begin powering up after safety checks were made. The start-up process can take nuclear plants from 18 to 24 hours to get to full power, but it could take longer since bringing the plants back on involves scheduling and backing out other power sources which had been brought on to fill the gap. Constellation expected Unit 1 to be back up by Saturday afternoon or early Sunday and Unit 2 to be back up by Sunday afternoon or early Monday.

Similar to non-nuclear facilities, when the grid is lost or significantly degraded, the protective circuits of a nuclear reactor and turbine generator automatically shut down the plant to protect equipment. Nuclear facilities are designed with backup power sources, typically emergency diesel generators, to provide for onsite needs. These diesels provide power to essential safety systems that in turn ensure that the reactor remains in a safe condition.

The NRC also said that rumors late Thursday that there was a fire at one of the Pennsylvania nuclear plants were not correct.

Michigan-based Consumers Energy on Friday afternoon urged customers to immediately institute conservation measures. “Reducing electricity in southeast Michigan — especially Lenawee, Hillsdale, Jackson and Monroe counties, is extremely critical,” the utility said shortly after 4:00 p.m.

Business customers across the state were being asked to curtail operations and shut down production to save power. “Due to the condition of the grid and the number of generating units remaining out of service, a supply shortage is likely,” Consumers Energy said. “Conservation at this critical time is required to ensure the continued stability of the electric system. It will also assist neighboring utilities that are working to recover from the power outages.”

As for possible causes for the massive blackout, NERC said that the “disturbance appears to have largely been caused by the loss of several major transmission lines in the upper Midwestern United States, which caused additional lines to go out of service as well as major fossil and nuclear power plants.”

NERC initially said that the outages were not the result of a physical or cyber terrorist attack, but at a later point in the day said that the blackouts were “most likely” not the result of such an attack.

While it remains unclear what exactly triggered the wave of outages, NERC’s Gent moved to dismiss what he called “rampant” speculation as to the cause of the blackouts. Specifically, he dismissed as incorrect reports that the outages were sparked by a lightning strike, problems at a power plant in New York City or an event that occurred in Canada (see related story).

NERC broke out the total of 61,800 MW that was initially lost on Thursday as follows:

The NYISO said that a major transmission line between New York and Pennsylvania was brought back online soon after the disturbance occurred on Thursday. Major interconnections with all neighboring states and provinces have been reestablished as well.

ConEd said that power restoration continued through Thursday night, with electricity returned to nearly 1.5 million of its 3.1 million customers by 8:30 a.m. on Friday. The utility said that there was now power to all of Staten Island, more than half of Westchester County and the Bronx, and parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

KeySpan on Friday said that its Ravenswood generating station, a major power producer in New York City, was slowly powering back up. The first of Ravenswood’s three steam generating units was in the process of starting up and the other two units will follow gradually within the day, the company said. Ravenswood, fueled primarily by natural gas, produces 25% of New York City’s power with approximately 2,200 MW.

As Ravenswood power becomes available, it will slowly be fed back into ConEd’s system as necessary. The facility’s gas turbines are up and running and are capable of producing 400 MW of electricity. They are being placed in service in coordination with ConEd.

KeySpan’s CEO Robert Catell has been in communication with ConEd Chairman Eugene McGrath, working to coordinate the gradual synchronization of Ravenswood with the city’s electric system and offering assistance as requested.

“As far as we can tell, there has been no damage to the Ravenswood generating units,” said Catell. “As we get all of the units up and running at full capacity, we will be able to determine if there are any negative impacts from yesterday’s event.”

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