Local News

Progress Energy Wants To Learn From Northeast Outage

Posted August 15, 2003 7:05 a.m. EDT

— After a blackout that crippled the Northeast on Thursday, affecting New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Canada, North Carolina residents want to know: "Can it happen here?"

The short answer is yes. But power companies say they have stop-gaps in place to keep the electricity flowing.

Thursday's outage had people discussing the positives and negatives of the Triangle's power source.

Local power lines are all interconnected, and that is supposed to be a major strength. But after Thursday, companies want to know if a system designed to make them stronger actually leaves them more vulnerable.

Progress Energy helped power the Northeast on Friday by selling blocks of electricity to the blackout areas. But the utility was careful not to sell its own customers short.

"We're boosting our reserve margins just to make sure that while we're sending power to the Northeast, we're not doing anything to jeopardize our customers here," Progress Energy spokesman Keith Poston said.

The United States is divided into three major power grids: one out west, one in Texas, and another that covers the eastern half of the country. The Carolinas and Virginia are also part of a smaller sub-grid. All of the country's major transmission lines are interconnected, allowing utilities to buy and sell power from each other.

That is supposed to be one of the system's strengths. But Thursday, it proved disastrous.

"If this was a single event, something went wrong," Poston said. "This shouldn't have happened. The system is built to isolate problems, and it should have been isolated much sooner than it was."

Last December, 300,000 Progress Energy customers lost power during an ice storm. Built-in safeguards prevented the outages from spreading even further. Nevertheless, Thursday's blackout could be a sign the inter-connections make them too dependent on each other.

"That may be something that comes out of this," Poston said. "We may be looking at that structure and deciding we need to have a little more independence in those areas."

A lot of people are working hard to figure out what went wrong Thursday. Whatever they learn could help power companies across the country improve their own systems.