CHICAGO – More homegrown renewable energy, enhanced investment in utility employees, and stronger cyber security are among the 32 recommendations presented to Governor Rod Blagojevich today by the blue-ribbon panel studying ways to avert widespread power outages in Illinois.
Appointed by Gov. Blagojevich to develop strategies to avoid the kind of blackouts that raged across the Northeast and Canada last August, the 11-person “Special Task Force on the Condition and Future of Illinois’ Energy Infrastructure” was chaired by Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and comprised of the Governor’s Cabinet members. Illinois is among the first states to address the problem.
On August 14, 2003, a sagging transmission line in Ohio touched an untrimmed tree branch, igniting an explosion equal to a blast of three sticks of dynamite and setting off a calamitous chain of events. A perfect storm of high demand, computer errors, obsolete equipment, inadequate training and miscommunication resulted in power outages that would eventually leave at least 50 million people in eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces in the dark, costing $6 billion.
“Fifty million people were plunged into darkness in nine seconds during last summer’s blackout in the Northeast,” Quinn said. “Cell phones and 911 systems failed, hospitals lost power and subways stalled under rivers. That catastrophe was a fire bell in the night about the electric grid’s condition and level of emergency preparedness everywhere, and Illinois has responded to the call.”
The Task Force report and recommendations are available at www.BlackoutSolutions.org.
The Task Force was charged with examining Illinois’ power grid, nuclear safety procedures, and personnel levels at generating and distribution facilities. It was asked to develop ways to cut demand, promote efficiency and foster renewable energy sources. The Task Force examined everything from cyber security at Illinois’ nuclear plants to energy efficiency standards in other states.
The Task Force convened a series of public hearings, and heard testimony from utility companies, business leaders, consumer advocates, academics and others. It held town hall meetings, including the state’s first-ever Cyber Town Hall Meeting, organized a volunteer working group and set up BlackoutSolutions.org as an electronic suggestion box.
More than 30,000 hits were registered so far on the BlackoutSolutions.org website, and a wide range of ideas were e-mailed to the Task Force, some of which are incorporated into the report. Several suggestions made to BlackoutSolutions.org and at the various public hearings addressed staffing at power plants. Inadequate background checks of new employees and contractors, insufficient staff recruitment and training, and arbitrary mandatory overtime policies all came under scrutiny.
One e-mail sent by an anonymous employee at an electric plant said, “…reductions in the workforce are not good for the customers, the system and the employees…in the last 10 years, our OT has steadily increased until now 1,000 and even 2,000 hours per year is the norm! in an industry as dangerous as ours, these excessive hours cause problems with safety.”
According to testimony from members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, at least 5 million overtime hours were worked by Commonwealth Edison employees alone from 2000 to mid-2003.
“Reckless mandatory overtime policies result in stressed and fatigued workers who are in perilous jobs such as linemen or power station operators,” Quinn said. “Illinois electric utilities need to recognize the special recruitment and training requirements of a 21st Century workforce,” Quinn said
The Task Force recommended that the Illinois Commerce Commission develop service standards for electric utilities to include measurement of staffing levels and training.
“The electric grid is the most complicated machine ever devised by human beings,” Quinn said.
“We are courting disaster unless sufficient numbers of people are at the controls who have been carefully chosen and properly trained.”
In addition to better hiring, training and management of the electric utility workforce, key recommendations include:
- developing “All-American” renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass;
- bringing Illinois’ energy efficiency program spending per capita to at least the national average;
- more aggressive tree-trimming and vegetation management by electric utilities;
- empowering consumers to control their energy usage and costs with innovative price response programs;
- implementing interconnection standards to make it easier for alternative power sources to plug into the grid, and
- ensuring rigorous screening by utilities of potential employees and contractors to reduce the chance of a cyber-terrorist cell operating at a nuclear facility or on the grid.
“Our 10-year blueprint for Illinois’ energy future - designed with unprecedented public input and groundbreaking use of the Internet - will slash electricity bills for households and small businesses, cut pollution and promote energy independence,” Quinn said. “The devastation of last summer’s blackouts in the Northeast can be avoided here if this balanced and sensible plan is adopted.”
Nearly all of Illinois’ energy is produced by nuclear (51%) and coal (45%) plants. Currently, only one-half of one percent of Illinois’ energy comes from renewable sources, compared to 12 percent in California.
The Task Force urged that Illinois join 16 other states in adopting a “renewables portfolio standard” (RPS) requiring electric utilities to produce or buy such renewable energy sources as wind, solar and biomass. A University of Illinois analysis estimates that a mandatory RPS would produce 8,000 new jobs and $950 million of net economic growth by 2010.
“We’ve put all our eggs in one basket,” Quinn said. “Major states such as Texas, Pennsylvania and California outpace us when it comes to diversifying their energy sources.”
The Task Force urged increased investment in wind power, whose strong potential in Illinois has gone largely untapped. Several “Class 4” wind potential zones exist in Illinois, including sites near Quincy, Sterling, Peoria and Bloomington. In addition, the Task Force urged adoption of uniform standards governing the connection of such generation to the transmission grid.
Illinois ranks just 34th in the nation in energy efficiency spending on programs such as rebates for energy efficient products, and energy education of consumers and small business owners. In fact, Illinois spends only 33 cents per capita on energy efficiency investment, well under the national average ($3.88 per capita). By increasing funding to at least the national average, Illinois could cut energy consumption by one-third, create new jobs, and reduce air pollution.
The Task Force urged other energy efficiency initiatives as well, such as enacting energy efficiency standards for all commercial and residential buildings, and tougher standards for appliances such as commercial freezers, air conditioners and cold beverage vending machines.
Three recommendations focus on vegetation management. At least $80 million was spent on tree-trimming in 2002 in Illinois, but an Illinois Commerce Commission analysis found that only two electric companies – Illinois Power and Ameren UE – dealt effectively with overgrown trees such as the Ohio tree which triggered the 2003 blackout. Earning “poor” grades for tree-trimming were Commonwealth Edison, Mt. Carmel Public Utility and South Beloit Water, Gas & Electric. The Task Force urged mandatory clearances between lines and vegetation, and increased accountability.
One idea e-mailed to BlackoutSolutions.org that grew into a recommendation was to let consumers make their own choices about energy use. Under so-called “price response programs”, customers receive real-time pricing information to encourage them to curtail usage in peak times. “Let’s give consumers and businesses the power and information to control their usage,” Quinn said. “Every household and business can help reduce demand while cutting their own electric bills.”
The Task Force reviewed the levels of emergency preparedness of key government agencies, as well as the electric utilities and regional transmission organizations which coordinate the flow of electricity regionally. Insufficient back-up power and sub-par communications were key findings of the bi-national Outage Task Force’s investigation of the August, 2003 blackouts in the Northeast and Canada.
During the August, 2003 blackout, cell phones were knocked out, the 911 system was paralyzed, water pressure dropped, and some nursing homes and government buildings went dark. The Task Force recommended 24-hour back-up power capacity for hospitals, nursing homes and telecommunication systems, an evaluation of Illinois’ 911 system, and review of the state’s critical response plan.
The Task Force evaluated emergency communications and power-generating capabilities of major Illinois government agencies and found, generally, a high degree of readiness. Of the 12 code agencies, ten have back-up generators, six have high-frequency radios, five have uninterrupted power sources, but only one has satellite communications. Buildings with large numbers of state employees - the James R. Thompson Center and Michael A. Bilandic Building in Chicago, and the State Capitol and Stratton Building in Springfield - could withstand an outage, although the Stratton Building lacks emergency stairwell lighting.
A virtual command center known as the Illinois Emergency Communications Network (IECN) was created in 2002 to facilitate communications between government agencies and utilities during disaster situations. The Task Force cited the benefits of the IECN, such as reduced response time in crises and enhanced decision-making.
Finally, the Task Force urged more public awareness. Utilities will be urged to provide links on their websites and in billing materials to websites hosted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (www.ready.gov) and American Red Cross (www.redcross.org). Quinn said the electronic suggestion box at www.BlackoutSolutions.org will stay up-and-running and invited everyone to visit the site and offer their reaction to the Task Force report.
“This report is a comprehensive blueprint, yet only the first step to a safe and reliable electric grid in Illinois,” Quinn said. “Now it is up to the General Assembly, state and local government agencies, electric utilities and consumers to move this plan forward.”
The Special Task Force includes Bill Burke (Director, Illinois Emergency Management Agency), Renee Cipriano (Director, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency), John Filan (Director, Governor’s Office of Management and Budget), Hon. Carl Hawkinson (Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety), Ed Hurley (Chairman, Illinois Commerce Commission), Jack Lavin (Director, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity), Susan Lichtenstein (General Counsel to the Governor), John Mitola (Chairman, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority), Michael Rumman (Director, Central Management Services), Gary Wright (Director, Division of Nuclear Safety) and Lt. Gov. Quinn.