|Above, a control room operator for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which has come under scrutiny in the wake of deadly power outages across the state during a winter storm earlier this month. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.|
Reporter’s Toolbox: Grid Data Can Guide Reporting on Power Disasters
By Joseph A. Davis
It was entirely predictable and didn’t have to happen. Ignoring facts made it worse, and was another case where journalists plugged into the right data could have helped people prepare and prevent.
As climate change and other negative trends unfold, there will be many kinds of imminent disasters. The Texas disaster was really just a special case.
Unseasonal freezes, sure. But also ice storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, derechos, downbursts, floods, wildfire, drought, mechanical failure, leaks and spills, and even sabotage by terrorists. Or maybe just large bulk power transformers blowing up or transmission towers toppling. Or worse. Things you can yet hardly imagine. Take your choice.
In each case, specialized planning and action for resilience will be needed (for more on resilient grid considerations, check out this SEJournal Issue Backgrounder).
Meanwhile, journalists can prepare themselves for electrical power disasters by being aware of some helpful data sources — whether local, regional or national.
Pinpoint your local supplier
The U.S. bulk power system is too vast, complex and technical to explain here. But it consists of a lot of small and mid-size generating companies, some with local distribution wires, interconnected through regional and national grids (see embedded map at below right).
|Map showing regional reliability councils and interconnections in North America. Image: North American Reliability Corporation. Click to enlarge.|
To ground truth your reporting, you should know who supplies your electric power locally — who bills you and allows you to recharge your phone. It may be a large or small company, possibly owned by a holding company. It may be investor-owned, publicly owned or a co-op.
Be aware that in most cases, the federal law known as the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, requires local distribution companies to allow customers to choose which bulk provider nominally supplies their electricity (that’s why you probably get solicitations from companies wanting to sell you green electricity).
Then go to the website of your local distribution company and look around. Make note of its “outage” reporting phone number and punch it into your cell phone contact list.
Does it have an outage map? Bookmark it. This may be updated in close-to-real time during an emergency. Or not. When you call in to report that your power is out, if you call from a landline associated with an address, the robots at the utility will know where the outage is. This data feeds the outage map, eventually.
Find regional data
The next step up in the hierarchy is the “regional entity.” There are six of these (if you count the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which does not really want to be counted; may require subscription). These entities function as regional system operators, managing and balancing supply and demand. They are:
- Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC)
- Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)
- Midwest Reliability Organization (MRO)
- SERC Reliability Corporation (SERC) in the Southeastern and Central regions
- ReliabilityFirst Corporation (RF) in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic
- Northeast Power Coordinating Council, Inc. (NPCC)
Journalists should figure out which regional sub-grid they are part of and then explore that entity’s website. There you will find lots of data in many forms (maps, spreadsheets, reports, downloadable data files, etc.), which may well give you a good picture of the status of the regional grid. Is it cruising comfortably? Or is it overtaxed or facing forecasts for a bad summer ahead?
It helps to know that some of these entities are actually made up of sub-grids — for example, the Tennessee Valley Authority (which is its own special kind of beast) is part of SERC. You may want to look for data on those sub-regional operation websites as well.
Also be aware that these entities are combined in larger units, called interconnections (but not Texas). The time to get to know your regional grid environment is before the disaster. With enough data, they may help you anticipate it.
Track NERC, FERC and more
There are electric grid data sources at the national level, too.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (known affectionately as NERC) is possibly the kingpin of grid-watchers and coordinates all the regional entities. It has a central role in setting reliability standards for the entire continental grid.
NERC produces a lot of data, but it is also rather secretive (ostensibly, the concern is security). See data products such as its 2020 reliability indicators report and metrics primers, and visit its newsroom.
A huge blackout in the Northeast in 2003 offered
concerning evidence that the nation’s whole approach
to electric reliability was not working that well.
Some relevant history. In 2003, there was a huge blackout in the Northeast that affected some 50 million people. It was not the first. But it offered concerning evidence that the nation’s whole approach to electric reliability was not working that well.
There were many causes: bad software, overgrown trees and sagging local lines, sure — but ineffective governance as well. No terrorists. No Green New Deal. There weren’t even that many wind turbines back then.
Many concluded that NERC needed stronger and sharper teeth for enforcement of its standards. One result was that Congress in 2005 looped the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which did have enforcement teeth, into the oversight mechanism beginning in 2006.
We would be remiss not to mention FERC as a data source as well. FERC issues the licenses that allow interstate transmission of power, not to mention hydropower licenses. FERC has a good power data gateway.
Another very important source of electric power data is the Energy Information Administration, an aspirationally independent agency within the Energy Department. The EIA actually keeps data on electric outages nationally over time (such as for the duration of power outages and average frequency of outages), as well as lots of other data about the electric sector (see an overview). It even has hourly electric production data, and its data is robust because it can require utilities to submit reports.
Watch for other infrastructure fault lines
As bad as the Texas outage is, there are more disasters to worry about, which means you might well be covering another bad outage soon. The Texas power disaster offered a lesson in how failures in several infrastructure systems (electric, gas, water) can feed off of each other.
Even before 9/11, reliability honchos were worried about terrorist assaults on the grid. Bullets and explosives could cause big trouble.
The people at NERC even worry about the damage that electromagnetic pulses could do to the grid. That’s what comes from nuclear weapons and … solar storms.
Bottom line: Pay attention to the data. And be ready.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.