Fade to Blackstart

Issue 5 and Volume 108.

By Brian K. Schimmoller,
Managing Editor

The Blackout that plunged much of the country into darkness this past August caused millions to question the integrity and reliability of the nation’s power grid. The bulk of the criticism has fallen on the lack of enforceable reliability requirements, ineffective vegetation management practices, and poor communication. An area that has escaped much attention — primarily because it appears to have performed effectively in the immediate aftermath of the Blackout — is blackstart capability, which enables the grid to re-energize without external power. Blackstart capability, however, occupies an uncertain position in the system reliability framework, caught between the “obligation to serve” element associated with conventional utility operation and the “market commodity” element associated with deregulation and evolving power markets. Resolving this dual master status warrants attention.

Consider the potential economic impact. The U.S. gross domestic product is about $11 trillion. For a widespread 24-hour power outage affecting one-tenth of the U.S. population, the economic fallout could approach $3 billion. You can equip a lot of power plants with blackstart capability for that amount of money.

In mid-March, Exelon Power completed upgrades at its 350 MW Southeast Chicago combustion turbine peaking plant to enhance its blackstart capabilities — adding three 2 MW diesel generators to start the fuel gas compressor and the first combustion turbine starting motor. The upgrade enables Exelon to be a reliable source of power should a major system blackout occur. To its credit, Exelon Power saw the need for additional blackstart capacity and acted accordingly. In fact, Exelon initiated the project in December 2002, well in advance of the Blackout of 2003.

Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, there has been little formal activity in developing, or at least evaluating, the need for beefed-up blackstart capability elsewhere post-August 14. Perhaps this is a reflection of the more serious issues associated with the Blackout, such as enforceable reliability standards. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of the “success” of the restoration process on August 15 and 16 — blackstart capacity wasn’t even needed in many cases. FirstEnergy was able to draw on pumped storage hydro plants on the Ohio River that didn’t trip off-line, and, in New York, NYISO was able to draw on the Niagara and St. Lawrence hydro plants to support and re-energize the grid after the Blackout.

Still, one would think the Blackout would jump-start a more detailed analysis of blackstart capabilities within utility service territories, control areas, and wider interconnection regions, to at least ensure there is enough capacity, in the right places, operating under the same procedures and requirements. The U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force’s final report on the Blackout, issued on April 5, does acknowledge the importance of blackstart functions, but with a muted sense of urgency. The Task Force recommended that NERC evaluate the blackstart and system restoration performance following the August 14 outage and report back to the NERC board within one year. Within six months of that date, each of the reliability councils would then be required to re-evaluate their procedures and plans to assure an effective blackstart and restoration capability within their region.

The reliability councils and regional transmission organizations (RTOs) do have guidelines in place regarding blackstart capability. According to PJM’s Emergency Operations Manual, for example, PJM has the ability to completely restore power from a shutdown state within 24 hours, with 80% restoration achieved within 16 hours. PJM acknowledges, however, that because of current scheduling strategies, the amount of nuclear units operating, direct purchases, and system conditions before and after the outage, these restoration times may be difficult to achieve.

Beyond the Blackout, there are other factors at play with respect to blackstart capability. “The recent issue which has probably had the greatest impact on the industry’s thinking with regard to blackstart capability is deregulation,” says Richard Barker, president of Quad Resources, an engineering, management and consulting firm based in Atlanta. “Since generation has become a market-based business, utilities are asking who will pay for blackstart capability. The most prevalent thinking seems to be that transmission line customers and users should pay a blackstart capability charge in order to have it available. But blackstart capacity was not among the so-called ancillary services mandated by FERC, so how this will shake out remains to be seen. Further, because deregulation has made line loadings and power flows less predictable than they once were, on what criteria will the decisions of how much and where blackstart capacity should be built be based?”

Questions such as these are beginning to force the operating ISOs and RTOs to evaluate the changing role of blackstart capability in a deregulated market. PJM Interconnection, for example, recently filed a tariff revision with FERC to provide more flexibility in the recovery of fixed costs associated with providing blackstart services. Rather than just compensating owners for costs attributed to existing resources, the revised tariff would enable recovery of costs required to provide new blackstart resources, to replace existing resources that may be retired or removed from blackstart service, or to make capital investments to retain or increase a generator’s blackstart capabilities. “While the August 14th Blackout has not directly caused us to make changes with respect to blackstart, it certainly highlighted the need for proper preparation, particularly as older blackstart units are retired,” said PJM spokesman Ray Dotter.

I’m not claiming that insufficient blackstart capacity is currently imperiling the nation’s power network. Whether or not sufficient blackstart capacity exists is a matter for the power system engineers to determine, not me.

The point I’d like to make is that the incremental cost of making strategically located power plants blackstart-qualified is modest — particularly in comparison to the avoided economic impact of a fade to black.