Texas A&M electrical engineer powers up for Northeast outages

August 15, 2003

COLLEGE STATION - In light of yesterday's blackout in the Northeastern United States and Canada, Texas A&M University's national expert on electric power systems said that the electric power infrastructure in the United States could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks due to the millions of miles of transmission lines and remote power facilities across the country. "There is no reason to suspect that terrorism was involved instead of some equipment failure or natural occurrence," said Dr. B. Don Russell, Regents Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M. "But our power infrastructure is very vulnerable. We have millions of miles of transmission lines and remote power facilities that are impossible to fully protect and guard." Russell, who also holds the J.W. Runyon, Jr. Professorship II in Engineering and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, suggested that instead of trying to protect power facilities, officials should focus on being able to quickly restore power to areas affected by a major outage. And it's impossible to prevent every multi-state blackout from occurring, particularly because many blackouts are caused by natural events, such as storms or lightning. "Since the Northeast blackout of 1965, our emphasis has been on limiting the scale of any blackout so that a disruption did not cascade and engage surrounding utility regions," Russell said. "Obviously, yesterday's disruption was far greater than anyone anticipated. Over 50 million people in many states were involved along with Canada." Russell said that it could be days or weeks before the exact cause of the outage is known. Once the cause has been determined, any necessary immediate changes will be made. But researchers will study this blackout for several years. "The investigation will not only include the exact causes, but also how to limit the scale of the disruption and how to prevent major cascading of the failure in future outages," Russell said. Russell also warned that the United States' electric utility infrastructure is aging and overstressed, with too few power plants being built in the last few decades. "We need major investment in the electric power system if it is to remain the best electric power system in the world. "If any good can be found in this," Russell said, "it is probably in the wakeup call that we must take our electric power systems more seriously and make major investments in our power infrastructure to ensure that outages are infrequent and limited, and that when a disruption occurs, power can be returned as quickly as possible."

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