A Taste of Trouble


Madison’s Brush with Electric System Disruption

Those who prefer to see the glass half full might say the 19th of July, forecast to be the summer’s hottest day to that point, at least started out with a dense overcast. With thick humidity and a predicted afternoon high of 95 degrees, cloud cover would help slow the temperature’s climb—which still wouldn’t make it a good day for the power to go out.

But it suddenly did, for about 13,000 Madison residents and additional thousands of early-arriving employees in downtown offices, who shortly before 8 a.m. began watching the heaviest black smoke most had seen in probably a very long time as it formed towering clouds above the Isthmus a few blocks from the Capitol Square.

Fire had broken out in a substation shared by Madison Gas and Electric and the Pewaukee-based American Transmission Company (ATC), which owns and operates a high-voltage system spanning most of the state and reaching into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

For Most, Just a Day Off

In fact, fire had broken out at two such substations, a little more than a mile apart, though for most people in the downtown area only one would have been easily seen. Video from a rooftop camera mounted high atop the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences revealed the first fire, at the Blount Street substation near the Madison Gas and Electric (MG&E) headquarters, could first be seen at about 7:40 a.m. The second fire, at the Campus East substation, began emitting visible smoke about 11 minutes later.

MG&E said an explosion and fire had occurred at Blount Street, with fire alone at the campus facility. The substations are connected electrically, and ATC said it believed the first fire caused overloading that touched off the second.

The proximate cause of the Blount Street fire remained under investigation at press time for Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News, but the effects were apparent immediately. Circuits powering homes, businesses, high-rise condominiums, office buildings, and traffic signals tripped off. Computer screens and servers, lighting, other office equipment, elevators, air conditioners and other electrical appliances stopped all at once. Emergency generators started up. Telephone land lines kept working, and along with countless cell phones they were busy as people tried to find out what was going on and what they ought to do.

Gradually learning what had happened, most were likely grateful that however disruptive the experience, they could solve the problem for themselves by simply going home. It could have been far worse.

Sobering Sights  

July 19 offered a mostly painless glimpse of a few of the things that will happen in our increasingly energy-dependent society if electricity suddenly becomes unavailable in a densely populated area. It illustrated why every conscientious power provider—certainly ATC and MG&E both belong in that category—keeps safety and system reliability at the top of its day-to-day concerns.

In Madison that morning, the inbound rush hour hadn’t ended before offices closed and streets filled with outbound traffic as people departed their darkened workplaces.

Red and blue warning lights on Madison police cruisers and fire department command vehicles flashed over a mile-long stretch of East Washington Avenue’s six lanes as officers sought to maintain traffic flow with some people still on their way to work while others were leaving.

Very few signal lights were operating, and at most intersections no one was directing traffic. A notable result was the large majority of motorists displaying almost surprising courtesy, taking turns as they would at marked four-way stops or waving each other through.

Here and there somebody would decide because most traffic signals weren’t working, those that were didn’t count. At one intersection several drivers were observed defying cross traffic to bull their way through a red light that was operating, drawing long horn blasts from those who’d played by the rules had waited for the green.

In the day’s heat, the university opened its Kohl Center sports arena as a cooling station for area residents without air conditioning.

Many of the downtown area’s numerous restaurants didn’t open. Some were forced to throw away food because lacking electricity, they couldn’t store it within safe temperature ranges. Others closed simply because they couldn’t run air conditioning and even if they could cook, the interior spaces became too hot for the staff and their patrons.

Commerce was impeded even for merchants conducting business outdoors: the traditional Maxwell Street Days sidewalk sale was hampered in many instances by the inability to process credit card transactions.

It was a mild but sobering hint of what things could be like if the grid went all the way down.

Mishap or Malice?

These days, the imagination takes free rein: One person watching the smoke from across a Madison lake was chilled by the sight of two fires burning simultaneously on the downtown isthmus, and said she wondered if some deliberate attack had been committed.

But the potential attackers who are now a source of great concern might cause chaos without needing to physically invade anyone’s substations, provided they manage to gain computer access to industrial control systems.

Amid the evening rush hour August 9 as reported by the UK Sun, “two National Grid generators spectacularly failed,” halting rail service across much of Great Britain, stranding commuters in darkened train cars and tunnels, shutting down traffic signals, and generally wreaking scattered electrical havoc in parts of London, Southeast England, and Wales, and major cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and as far north as Glasgow.

The power provider, National Grid, disclosed that the two “generators” were a natural gas-fired power plant and an offshore North Sea wind farm—reportedly the world’s biggest—both suddenly dropping offline within two minutes of each other.

National Grid immediately ruled out a cyberattack or terrorism but later conceded it didn’t know what caused the outages. The generation outage itself lasted less than an hour but impairment of service persisted overnight and into the following morning, largely because trains and crews weren’t where they needed to be to resume normal operations.

Wherever the British utility and its regulators ultimately fix blame for last month’s partial system collapse, fear of such events being engineered by malicious actors will likely rise. It’s not widely disputed that Russian hands controlled the brief shutdown of much of Ukraine’s electric grid in 2015, and it’s considered a given that Chinese, Iranian, and Russian hackers, with and without state sponsorship, have penetrated U.S. computer networks.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) received congressional authorization to enforce toughened standards after an eight-state blackout in August 2003 attributed toÑeven those relatively recent times were more innocent than todayÑinadequately trimmed tree branches shorting out an Ohio utility’s transmission lines.

James Robb is NERC’s president, and in mid-July he testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that “The threat from cyberattacks by nation states, terrorist groups, and criminals is at an all-time high. Now more than ever, grid security is inextricably linked to

Robb reminded subcommittee members of an obvious truth too easily forgotten: The North American bulk power system “is among the nation’s most critical infrastructures,” given that “virtually every critical sector depends on electricity.”

“One of the largest, most complex systems ever created,” Robb said. “It is robust and highly reliable,” but even so, “conventional and non-conventional factors do present risks.”

The NERC president was able to tell the subcommittee that so far, no loss of electrical load in North America can be attributed to a cyberattack, but he warned that “the security landscape is dynamic, requiring constant vigilance and agility.” Translation: The bad guys keep trying.

Avoidable Threats

Mechanical breakdowns, human error, cyberattacks, and damaging weather by no means comprise a full list of system reliability threats. Those who witnessed California’s late 1990s electric restructuring nightmare will vividly remember how deliberate policy choices reduced electricity supply, sent costs through the roof, and compelled rolling blackouts. The current, wildfire-related woes of Pacific Gas and Electric triggered the utility’s second bankruptcy. The first resulted from (temporarily popular) legislation forcing it to buy power at unregulated and readily manipulated wholesale prices and sell it at frozen retail rates.

A not dissimilar threat that can’t be ignored today is the rising popularity of ideologically driven energy policies demanding that all but the most idealistic choices be not just rejected, but demonized, the better to extinguish any possibility of their use.

The State of Washington is funding a judicially mandated study of tearing down four modest-sized dams that produce approximately 1,000 megawatts (a little less than Wisconsin’s Point Beach nuclear plant) of reliable, emission-free electricity.

In the dangerously cold polar vortex episodes of recent winters, New England utilities have resorted to burning more coal and fuel oil for electricity generation in a life-or-death choice forced by state-level policies consciously designed to block development of new natural gas pipeline capacity.

In Berkeley, California this summer, the city council voted unanimously to forbid natural gas connections in new, low-rise housing units starting next January, with other new construction similarly targeted for future restriction.

Say what you will about natural gas: it’s a fossil fuel, its cost has historically been volatile, the supply is finite. Nevertheless, today’s abundant gas supplies have not only helped displace more environmentally problematic generation sources, they’ve reduced the emissions intensity of U.S. electric generation below the proposed 2005 baseline of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan even as electricity production has risen, and they provide an indispensable backstop against the inconsistent availability of renewable generation.

If we choose to flatter ourselves with policy choices that prohibit the use of energy sources we can count on around the clock, then we mustn’t pretend to be surprised when reliable delivery of affordable electricity comes unraveled.