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Memories of the northeast blackout 10 years later

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The Canadian Press

Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 9:06 AM -

A decade after the massive blackout that left millions in Ontario and the US without power, energy experts and politicians say monitoring systems have improved extensively, but the grid is still susceptible to human error, severe weather and even cyber attacks. 

On August 14 2003, sections of the North American electrical grid began failing catastrophically after overloaded transmission lines came in contact with overgrown trees, and operators in the control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio were unaware of the extent of the blackout due to deficiencies in their training and monitoring systems. 

This led to a cascading effect that quickly spread to Ontario, leaving an estimated 10 million people without power, and across the United States due to the inter-connectivity of the North American electrical grid. 

"The blackout that you saw in 2003 was the largest power outage in North American history up to that point, which directly affected 50 million people ... and the blackout really tested the system at that particular point and time," says Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, who was mayor of Ottawa in 2003. "Today, the regulatory standards throughout North America are much more clear, and the roles and responsibilities of the system and transmission operators are monitored and they're enforced through sanctions." 

The mandatory implementation of industry sanctions across the continent had been called for years by industry leaders and could have prevented the 2003 blackout that had estimated total costs of about $5 to 10-billion across the continent, but no such standards existed at that time. 

"It's one of the major changes that came out of the 2003 event, there had been discussions before as early as the mid to late 90's about the need for mandatory reliability standards, but it really never got over the finish line," says President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation Gerry Cauley. "But the 2003 event caused the US Congress to include the provision of mandatory standards, compliance and enforcement and in 2005 they created that."

FirstEnergy, the corporation at the heart of the blackout, went to great lengths to update their capabilities to prevent a similar event from taking place but deficiencies in the grid still exist. 

"We've added new facilities, new equipment, we've enhanced our operator training and implemented new NERC operational standards and the key piece is they are now mandatory and enforceable," said Mark Durbin, a spokesman for FirstEnergy. "We believe that's helped enhance the reliability of not just our piece of the transmission system, but of the transmission system as a whole."

Despite these drastic industry changes, there are more threats to the grid from weather complications and cyber attacks than there were in 2003. 

"One of the highest priorities of NERC today is cyber security and severe weather events ... and there needs to be perhaps more engagement in those areas, they're priority areas but I don't think there's 100 per cent comfort in the system yet in those areas," said Chiarelli.

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