The (Not-So) Great Blackout of '03
by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

Early in the afternoon of Thursday, August 14, something happened. Power lines failed. Overloaded lines tripped off. To fill the sudden vacuum, power was pulled from Michigan into Ohio. Then, to fill this void, power was pulled from Ontario, Canada, into Michigan. Next, power was pulled from New York into Ontario. Ultimately, millions of Americans in the Midwest and Northeast were in the dark in what some experts say is the largest power outage in our history, and certainly the largest since 1977.

No sooner did the flow of electricity begin again than legislators, regulators, utilities, citizen groups and the media began wondering: What happened? And, perhaps more importantly, how and why did it happen? Definitive answers are still not known, as the U.S. Department of Energy and the North American Electric Reliability Council continue to gather millions of facts and sort through them for clear answers.

Perhaps of most interest to those of us in Virginia is this: Could it happen here? And the safest answer is “Maybe.” To which we should probably add, “But it’s not likely.” While we don’t know exactly why the blackout happened up north, we do know that our region of the country seems to have the capacity to generate enough electricity to meet our own needs. This has been aided in recent months by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, which provides all the power requirements for 10 of Virginia’s 13 local cooperatives.

Old Dominion has recently built two electric-generating stations, one in Maryland and one in Louisa County, and is building a third in Fauquier County. Old Dominion already owns half of the coal-fired Clover Power Station in Halifax County, and almost 12 percent of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Louisa. These five stations make up an “electric generating portfolio” intended to help ensure that cooperatives are doing everything possible to meet your power needs today and deep into the future.

Does building these electric-generating stations guarantee that a blackout won’t happen here? No. But it does absolutely increase our ability to provide you with reliable, affordable power in an industry that is undergoing rapid, dramatic change. Some experts, in fact, are wondering whether our nation’s existing electric transmission grid is capable of handling the complex movement of power from region to region that will be required when deregulation and customer choice are fully implemented.

Clearly, our nation needs to tackle the need to upgrade existing transmission lines and to build additional ones, to handle the burgeoning growth in usage of electricity, growth powered by population surges and technological breakthroughs that frequently require electricity as a power source. Controlling demand for electricity is also, and has been for two decades or more, a priority for electric cooperatives and other utilities. 

These highly technical but critically important issues — the siting and building of power stations and transmission lines, the ability to move power from region to region, creative ways to control demand, ways to increase usage of domestic fuel sources, and ways to utilize renewable sources of power — are all being considered by Congress as this issue of Cooperative Living goes to press. It is likely that Congress will pass an energy bill before the end of the year. We’ll keep you informed about how this will affect you and your family.

In the meantime, on the home front, please know that your local electric cooperative is in business for one purpose: to provide you with the most reliable power possible at the lowest possible cost. This doesn’t guarantee that a blackout will never happen here, but it does guarantee that highly competent local folks are looking out for your interests every hour of every day. That’s the cooperative way.



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