CHAMPAIGN – A University of Illinois professor says major rolling blackouts like the one that struck the Northeast on Thursday could strike in the Midwest, but representatives from two area electric companies say they aren't so sure about that.
Tom Overbye, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UI, said Illinois is part of the same electrical grid that left as many as 50 million people without electricity on Thursday afternoon.
"We share the grid with New York, Detroit, Canada, Florida and the eastern Rocky Mountains," Overbye said.
According to Overbye, North America has five major electrical grids (also known as synchronous systems), each of which is separate from the others:
– The Eastern Grid, which includes most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, except for Texas and much of eastern Canada.
– The Western Grid, which includes areas west of the Rockies, western Canada and Baja California, Mexico.
– The Quebec Grid, which only serves the Canadian province of Quebec.
– The Texas Grid. "Texas has its own separate grid because the people there don't want to be regulated by the federal government," Overbye said. "As long as their electricity doesn't cross state lines, they can avoid being regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission."
– The Mexican Grid, which covers all of Mexico except for Baja California.
Overbye said residents of the Midwest, Plains states and the South are lucky the blackouts stopped at Toledo and Detroit.
Overbye said Thursday's problem began when several transmission lines went down. As electricity rushed from nearby states to the problem areas to make up for the lost power, he said, a cascading effect was created that caused those states to lose power.
"The blackout could have been three times as bad," Overbye said. "It easily could have affected our area."
While Overbye isn't sure why the rolling blackouts stopped at Toledo and Detroit, he said electric officials in New England manually took out connections to prevent the outage from spreading east to the Boston area.
But spokespersons for two area electric companies said they aren't sure Illinois could experience an outage like the one that hit New York.
Shirley Swarthout, a spokeswoman for Illinois Power, said the electric industry doesn't yet know enough about what happened in the Northeast to address whether a similar blackout could happen in our area.
Swarthout said Illinois Power monitored the situation in the Eastern Grid throughout Thursday and observed a shift in electrical power at the time of the blackouts.
"We knew there was a disturbance somewhere in the power grid," she said.
"We've had outages in the Midwest due to natural events like ice storms, tornadoes and major thunderstorms, but we never had anything as massive as what was experienced in the northeastern United States," said Leigh Morris, a spokesman for Ameren.
Unlike New York, which is on the edge of the Eastern Grid, Morris said Illinois has a variety of states from which to borrow electricity in the event of a power outage.
"Being in the heartland, we have electricity flowing to us from many directions," Morris said. "That helps give us a safeguard that the folks in New York don't have."
Swarthout agreed that Illinois' central location makes it a less likely candidate for a New York-style blackout.
"Geographically, we have an advantage in that regard," she said. "If a power plant is unavailable in Indianapolis, there are going to be other sources of supply that can meet our needs."
Swarthout said Illinois Power has tried to establish safeguards to minimize outages.
"It's like what happens if your electric oven shorts out at home," she said. "It should trip the circuit breaker, and nothing else will happen. If one piece isn't doing its part, it ought to disconnect from the main system."
Swarthout also said Illinois Power keeps 15 percent of extra energy on hand at all times in the event the local system loses outside power sources.
In addition, Swarthout said Illinois Power has agreements with nine neighboring utilities, including Ameren CIPS, Ameren UE and Commonwealth Edison, to share power in times of need.
Rantoul Public Works Director Greg Hazel said he believes his community would continue to have electricity if a massive outage like the one that struck the Northeast on Thursday hit our area.
Rantoul runs its own electricity utility and has 15 generators situated around the community.
Hazel said the generators can produce up to 23 megawatts of electricity.
While Rantoul was using 30 megawatts of electricity on Thursday afternoon, Hazel said he was confident his department could provide enough electricity to serve the entire community by asking residents to turn off unnecessary appliances through the crisis.
"We would ask people to cut back and conserve," Hazel said. "If everybody cooperated, we could keep the village's electricity going, even if there were a major blackout."
You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 351-5366 or via e-mail at email@example.com.