Blackout like one in Northeast unlikely here

August 15, 2003|HERB BROCK

The massive power blackout in the northeastern United States is something that potentially could happen anywhere, but chances of it occurring in this area are relatively slim.

That's the word from two top officials of Inter-County Energy Cooperative, an electric utility that serves some 24,000 customers in 12 Central Kentucky counties, including Boyle, Casey, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer.

Jim Jacobus, president and chief executive officer, and Steve Souder, vice president of operations, said today it would be premature to come to firm conclusions and comparisons about the blackout that stretches from New York north to Toronto and west to Cleveland because a cause is not yet known. "We may not know for months, if then, what happened up there," said Souder.

But based on the information that is known about the incident, Jacobus and Souder said that it is not likely that such a major breakdown could hit Inter-County, Kentucky Utilities and other Kentucky power companies.


While no utility or area of the country is immune to major problems, and Kentucky is not totally insulated from them, the Inter-County officials said the state and its utilities have one significant thing going for them: Quick access to nearby power generation.

"The sources of power we use are much closer to the Kentucky utilities than the sources of power that are used by utilities in other parts of the country," including parts of the Northeast and California, which has suffered through major energy shortages and rolling blackouts, Jacobus said.

"The problem up there (Northeast) is that the utilities may well not have enough power close to them. They have to get it from somewhere else," he said.

"Fortunately, we and KU and other Kentucky companies have a good, adequate supply from electricity power generation in our own state. We have power generation to serve our native load," he said. "Up there and in other parts of the country, they get it from somewhere else, from other states. Unlike there, we are fortunate in that we are not dependent on outside sources."

"NIMBY" attitue is a related problem

A related problem for parts of the Northeast and West is a prevailing "NIMBY" attitude, said Jacobus.

"In some parts of the country, there is what we call in the business a NIMBY situation - not in my backyard," he said. "They want cheap power, but they don't want to have the generation plant built close by, in their own backyard, so to speak. So the plants are built in some other state and the plants sell it and transport it long distance to the utilities that use it."

Inter-County gets its electricity from East Kentucky Power, based in Winchester. Inter-County is one of 17 electric cooperatives in the state that own East Kentucky Power, including its power generation facilities.

Inter-County and its East Kentucky Power partners have their own system, per se, but they are all linked with other systems throughout most of the eastern United States, said Souder. All are part of different but interlocking grids, he said.

"A grid is a connection of transmission lines and substations, a high voltage transmission system," Souder said. "All of it east of the Rockies is tied together by transmission lines, from one substation to another. Because of the linkage, if one unit goes down, it can buy power from someone down the line and have it delivered relatively quickly."

Breakers should keep "major events" from affecting Kentucky

Despite connection of utilities through various grids, there is a system of breakers that should keep "major events" in other parts of the country from affecting Kentucky, said Souder.

"If some sort of terrible event were to deteriorate one of the systems in some other part of the country, there is an automatic process in place to separate utilities," he said. "Say, if the event occurred to one of Eastern Kentucky Power's neighbors, the breakers in the system would open up and separate us (from utilities directly affected by the event). We would continue to serve our own customers without interruption."

By the same token, Eastern Kentucky Power, KU and other utilities in the state could help supply power to areas hit by events referred to by Souder.

"When we have excess power, we can sell it to utilities in need, and vice versa," Jacobus said. "As recently as a few years ago, East Kentucky had some excess power at a time when Hamilton and Cleveland in Ohio were short. So we sold some of the excess to those two areas and wheeled it over the transmission lines to them."

While Inter-County and other Kentucky utilities appear to be in good shape when it comes to having quick access to power and a system of breakers that would protect the cooperative and other companies in the state from blackouts in other parts of the country, that doesn't mean widespread, long-term outages can never happen.

Both Jacobus and Souder recall the winter of 1994, when an ice storm caused a massive outage that affected almost all of Inter-County's customers, at one time or another. But Souder said that wasn't a result of a power shortage or a system failure.

"The 1994 event was caused by Mother Nature," he said. "Trees were falling on power lines and breaking distribution circuits. There was nothing technical or systemic about it."

Central Kentucky News Articles