For those of you who work as plant engineers or maintenance technicians in production industries with critical power requirements, the thought of losing power—even for a second—is probably enough to keep you up at night. Whether you’ve ever experienced an outage or not, you can probably imagine what it’s like. At the first sign of an outage, you pray that it’s just a little hiccup in the system, which is a small consolation when even the slightest voltage sag can cost thousands of dollars in lost production. But then when the lights don’t come back on that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach only grows stronger as you realize that not only has your production process ground to a halt, but that phone on the wall next to your desk is going to ring any second and connect you to a very angry, very vocal plant manager. Time to break out that bottle of Maalox.
Now, try to imagine just for a second what was going through the minds of the power plant control room operators throughout Ohio, Michigan, and New York as their power plants shut down one-by-one on August 14. Or better yet, think what the system control room operators thought as their network transmission lines began tripping out of service—eventually leaving large geographic areas in the dark. Take the panic you might encounter if you lost power in your facility and multiply it tenfold, and you might be able to begin to understand the fear that probably gripped the grid system operators on the day of the worst blackout in U.S. history.
In the aftermath of that blackout, which cut off power to more than 50 million people, the question on everyone’s mind is, What did we learn? For one, we learned that Democrats and Republicans will use any catastrophic event to point fingers at the other side of the aisle and blame one another for failing to vote for legislation that would have prevented said event. Aside from that, though, the most popular answer to that question has been...drum roll, please...the country’s electric utility system is old and in need of repair.
No kidding. Utility engineers have been saying this for years!
To be honest, although I spent my time in the late ’80s and early ’90s working in the transmission and substation engineering departments for a Florida utility, my interests now lie on the other side of the meter. And although I believe that few of you readers can learn anything of a technical nature from this blackout that you can apply directly to your day-to-day jobs, any power outage of any kind should wake you up to the importance of taking every step at your disposal to protect your equipment and processes from any kind of power quality event. You can complain to your utility all you want about the quality of power they supply you with, but the only real way to make sure you get the kind of reliability you need is to install your own on-site back-up power generation systems.
People break down into one of two groups: those who look at this summer’s blackout and think, “Whew, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me!” and those who think, “I wonder if I’m prepared for an outage of that magnitude at my facility.” If you’re one of the former, just make sure you keep a flashlight and a fresh set of batteries under your desk, and take that phone off the hook.