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Shore up our fragile power grid

Apower outage that spread from Miami to Tampa Bay left more than 2-million Floridians in the dark Tuesday and proved that the transmission grid is still unreliable. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. After the massive 2003 blackout that left 50-million people in the northern United States and Canada without power, Congress supposedly put some teeth into utility regulation.

Yet the fragile power grid toppled once again, this time in Florida. The outage started as a minor short circuit and fire at a Miami substation, which caused two Florida Power & Light nuclear reactors to shut down. That imbalance rippled up the line to three other utilities, including Progress Energy and Tampa Electric in the Tampa Bay area. Clearwater traffic lights blinked off and students had to be evacuated from the University of South Florida library.

It was the most serious power failure since the 2003 fiasco, when a small Ohio utility failed and triggered a spreading blackout to Toronto and New York City. After an investigation, then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham declared that "the blackout was largely preventable."

Maybe not. In Florida, energy officials are still looking for an explanation of why a small problem quickly grew into a big one. Fortunately, the blackout occurred on a mild winter afternoon when no one was likely to roast or freeze. In fact, Florida's recent moderate weather could be part of the reason for the state's lack of urgency in developing power reserves.

The recent winter report by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the self-regulating industry group that oversees the nation's grid, noted that Florida has a reserve power capacity of 19 percent. That might sound like enough, but it is the lowest of any region in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. Further, the report warned of possible "unplanned outages" in Central Florida because of rapid population growth.

On the plus side, the utilities responded to the emergency quickly and effectively, restoring power for most customers within a few hours. Still, state officials should be concerned about the grid's reliability. Both Gov. Charlie Crist and the state's congressional delegation should press federal energy officials to do a complete analysis of the state's power needs and to order a fix of any shortcomings. The next emergency might not be as benign.

Shore up our fragile power grid 02/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:00am]
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