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Blackout 2003

A view of the blackout from space
Source: Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA)

This page provides information on the August 14, 2003 power system outage that affected large portions of the north eastern U.S. and Canada. Investigations to assess the cause of the power outage resulted in a number of initiatives and reports which are detailed below. The IESO’s participation and involvement with industry and government during this time are also detailed below.

Sequence of Events

Shortly before 4:11 p.m. on August 14, 2003, a series of power surges over a 12-second period triggered a cascade of shutdowns at more than 100 generating plants throughout eight U.S. states and Ontario. The result was the biggest blackout in North American history. 61,800 megawatts of power were lost to over 50 million people. The IESO-administered markets were suspended for nine days.

The IESO’s sequence of events provides a brief summary of system operations on the IESO-controlled grid surrounding the system blackout and subsequent system restoration for August 14 and 15, 2003. This summary does not cover operations and events that occurred outside of Ontario.

A sequence of events provided by the U.S./Canada Power Outage Task Force on September 12, 2003, details how the grid situation evolved over the afternoon of August 14. This blackout timeline focuses primarily on events that occurred on major transmission facilities (230 kv and greater) and at large power plants. Input into this sequence of events came from the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC), Independent System Operators, utility companies and regulatory agencies from both Canada and the U.S.

Market Suspension and Resumption

Market Suspension

Chapter 7, section 13.2 of the Market Rules outlines how and when the IESO-administered markets can be suspended by the IESO for any of four reasons:

  • a failure in the software, hardware or communications systems that support market operations, rendering it physically impossible to continue market operations in a normal manner;
  • a major blackout;
  • an emergency situation requiring the IESO to evacuate its principle control centre; or
  • a declaration of an emergency situation by the premier or direction from the minister to implement an emergency plan.

Due to the major blackout of the power system on August 14, 2003, the IESO declared the suspension of all IESO-administered markets at 4:20 p.m. EDT. Subsequent to market suspension, a provincial state of emergency was declared. With the market suspended, the IESO began issuing manual dispatch instructions to coordinate the restoration of the system in a safe and reliable manner.

A special edition "Quick Take" on Market Suspension describes how the IESO managed the following issues during the suspension of the IESO-administered markets:

  • Load Shedding
  • Administrative Pricing
  • Settlement Statements
  • Revenue Meters
  • Notice of Disagreements
  • Financial Transmission Rights Market
  • Invoices

For the duration of the market suspension period, the wholesale price of electricity was determined using administrative pricing which compared demand patterns from similar days, taking conservation efforts into account.

Market Resumption

During the market suspension, the IESO directed the operation of the Ontario electrical system with all actions focused on maximizing reliable supply to the customers of Ontario. For much of this time, the IESO was directing the operation without using the normal suite of market systems and was manually requesting generators to supply electricity to the grid.

As the IESO progressed through the week, the added reliability benefits afforded by using the suite of market systems prompted the IESO to request dispatchable market participants to start submitting their dispatch data via the market systems. This provided the IESO with added reliability assessment capabilities and improved its forward-looking assessments. It had the additional benefit of starting the preparations for the orderly resumption of the electricity market.

Before normal market operations could resume following a suspension of this duration, there were a number of activities that required co-ordination. The IESO, in cooperation with each dispatchable market participant, had to ensure that the communication systems were working and that the data available to the systems reflected current conditions. The IESO closely monitored the results from the market systems prior to resuming the automated dispatch of Ontario resources.

At 8:00 p.m. EST on August 22, 2003, the provincial state of emergency ended. The IESO-administered markets resumed at 1:00 a.m. EDT on Saturday, August 23. Operational decisions, including intertie transaction schedules were once again determined by collecting offers from suppliers and bids from purchasers to determine the wholesale price of electricity.

Information on submitting dispatch data after market resumption, the issuance of participant-specific reports and reporting requirements on market suspension by the IESO Board of Directors was released in a special edition "Quick Take" on Market Resumption.

IESO Information Provision during Emergency

Throughout the emergency, the IESO attempted to keep market participants and other industry stakeholders up-to-date on market developments by issuing communications on an on-going basis.

Joint U.S.- Canada Task Force Investigating Causes of 2003 Blackout

On August 15, 2003, Prime Minister Jean Chretien and US President George W. Bush agreed to form a joint task force to identify the causes of the power outage and to seek recommendations to help prevent future outages.

The Task Force was jointly chaired by Herb Dhaliwal, Minister of Natural Resources Canada and by United States Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham.

Other Canadian members on the Task Force included:

  • Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, in his capacity as Minister responsible for Border and Security Issues;
  • Kenneth Vollman, Chairman of the National Energy Board; and
  • Linda J. Keen, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Other U.S. members on the Task Force included:

  • Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security;
  • Pat Wood, Chairman of the Federal Regulatory Commission; and
  • Nils J. Diaz, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Task Force and its working groups sought the input and cooperation of those provinces and states having the most direct responsibility for electrical systems. In addition, energy providers, regulators, technical experts and engineers were asked to contribute to the work of the Task Force to further analyze the data and come to an understanding of why this event happened.

Both the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) assembled a team of experts to assist the U.S.-Canada Task Force investigation into the cause of the blackout.

Task Force Interim Report

The Task Force issued a joint Interim Report on November 19, presenting its initial findings on the cause of the August 14th blackout. The interim report assessed conditions on the electric transmission grid that contributed to the blackout, outlined the actual physical causes of the outage, and discussed events and conditions that allowed the blackout to spread to large areas of the United States and Canada. The findings also confirmed that the blackout did not originate in Ontario, nor could the province's power system have been in a position to anticipate the events that led to the blackout and prevent it from reaching its borders.

The second phase of the process included public forums in early December, which allowed public comment on both the joint interim report and recommendations for preventing future blackouts.

IESO Submission to Task Force Hearing

The IESO’s then Chief Operating Officer Paul Murphy appeared before the Task Force on December 8, 2003, in Toronto, reiterating the IESO's support for mandatory, international reliability standards. The IESO's submission reminded the Task Force of the reliability framework that is already in place in Ontario, with the IESO assigned the accountability for system reliability and the authority to oversee reliability compliance in the Province. It also suggested a series of general principles to be used in developing the recommendations for the Task Force's final report.

These principles included:

  • The development of reliability standards must remain the purview of an international electricity reliability organization.
  • The independent administration and integration of the power system and market operations should be maintained and enhanced.
  • Provisions to make reliability standards mandatory and enforceable should be put in place where they do not already exist.
  • The industry should continue to focus on the existing three-part strategy of prevention, containment and minimization of impact.
  • The reliability framework for North America should be built on the strong international institutions and regulatory foundations already in place.

IESO Recommendations to Joint Task Force

On December 16, 2003 and January 9, 2004, the IESO participated in Technical Conferences in both Philadelphia and Toronto sponsored by the US-Canada Power System Outage Task Force to seek recommendations concerning the August 14 blackout. Based on these Technical Conferences, the IESO submitted on January 13 to the Joint Task Force 11 general recommendations to prevent large scale outages in the future. The submission also included comments corresponding to the Technical Conferences' five panel sessions, including:

  • Reliability Coordination
  • Emergency Response
  • Operating Tools
  • Planning, Design and Maintenance Issues
  • Protection and Control Issues

The submission concluded by outlining background information on the IESO, as well as detailing specific IESO accountabilities regarding reliability.

IESO Testimony before U.S. House of Representatives

On September 4, 2003, then IESO President and Chief Executive Officer David Goulding presented a testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce on the blackout. The testimony followed a letter sent by Committee Chairman W.J. Tauzin on August 19 to public officials and utility councils and companies requesting information on the blackout.

The two-day full committee hearing (September 3 and 4), entitled "Blackout 2003: How Did It Happen and Why", resulted in the release of a number of hearing documents. Information from other independent system operators, including hearing documents and testimonies before the U.S. House of Representatives, are available at the following web sites:

Final Blackout Task Force Report

Making reliability standards "mandatory and enforceable" with "penalties for non-compliance" lie at the heart of the Canada-U.S. Task Force’s final report on the August 2003 Blackout. The report identified 46 specific technical and policy recommendations on minimizing or preventing future blackouts, the most important of which stressed mandatory reliability standards and enforceability.

Focusing on vulnerabilities within the reactive power supplies in Northern Ohio, the report indicated that the blackout “could have been prevented and that immediate actions must be taken in both the United States and Canada to ensure that our electric system is more reliable”. To do so, the Task Force extended its mandate by one year in order to underscore both governments’ commitments to the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

Preliminary Report by IESO Board of Directors

In accordance with Market Rules requirements in Chapter 7,section 13.7.3, the IESO Board of Directors is obligated to provide a preliminary report to market participants within 10 business days of market resumption following a market suspension.

The Board provided their preliminary report to market participants on September 8, 2003, which included a brief description of the conditions in Ontario prior to and immediately following the blackout and the actions taken to restore electricity service and the market to Ontarians.

Final Restoration Evaluation Report

The stakeholder-represented Emergency Preparedness Task Force, chaired by the IESO, completed the August 2003 Blackout - Restoration Evaluation Report in February 2004. They conducted an extensive review of the facts surrounding the restoration of Ontario’s power grid and related emergency response activities, assessed the effectiveness of restoration efforts, and identified recommendations for improvement.

The Emergency Preparedness Task Force’s conclusions were submitted through a cover letter by the IESO Board of Directors to meet reporting obligations.

NERC Compliance

Following the August 14, 2003 Blackout, the IESO immediately undertook a review of the events to assess lessons learned and responded to recommendations by NERC and NPCC and the ISO/RTO Council. The IESO was in compliance and conformance with the NERC Near-Term Compliance Actions and Reliability Practices and the ISO/RTO Council Recommendations.

The following documents represent some of the findings including the IESO's response on matters related to: voltage and reactive management; reliability communications; system monitoring and control functions; power system operations; emergency action plans and procedures; training of staff for emergencies and vegetation management.

Energy Conservation During Emergency

Throughout the duration of the emergency, the IESO and the government of Ontario issued numerous appeals to the people of Ontario urging them to conserve energy to avoid overloading the system.

As part of the power recovery strategy, the provincial government:

  • operated with essential services only;
  • requested that industrial, commercial and retail businesses reduce consumption by operating at 50% of their normal usage; and
  • asked businesses to conserve energy by avoid using air conditioning, billboards and night lights.

Conservation appeals helped keep demand below available generation, avoiding the need for rolling blackouts. Preliminary information during the emergency indicated that at the peak hours of the day, electricity demand was reduced anywhere between 15%-20%. Overall consumption in Ontario was reduced by 394,000 MWh over the nine days.

Electricity Backgrounders

Related Links

Ontario Energy Board
Ministry of Energy
Natural Resources Canada
National Energy Board
U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.): Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution
North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC)
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

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