Task force urges emergency preparedness

On Aug. 14, 2003, a sagging transmission line in Ohio touched a tree branch, igniting an explosion equal to that 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 plunged 50 million people into darkness, costing $6 billion. Cell phones and 911 systems failed, hospitals lost power and subways stalled under rivers.

That event was a fire bell in the night about the electric grid’s condition and level of emergency preparedness everywhere, and Illinois is among the first states to respond to the call.

Following that calamity, Governor Rod Blagojevich named the “Special Task Force on the Condition and Future of the Illinois Energy Infrastructure” to prevent such blackouts. The blue-ribbon Task Force examined Illinois’ power grid, nuclear safety procedures, and utility personnel levels. It explored ways to promote efficiency and foster renewable energy.

The Task Force convened public hearings, and heard testimony from utility companies, business leaders, consumer advocates and everyday people. It held town hall meetings—including Illinois’ first-ever Cyber Town Hall Meeting—and set up a Web site as an electronic suggestion box, which registered 30,000 hits.

Among the 32 comprehensive recommendations made by the Task Force this week are more homegrown renewable energy, enhanced investment in utility employees, and stronger cyber security. The Task Force report and recommendations are available at www.BlackoutSolutions.org.

The Task Force addressed power plant staffing. It found inadequate background checks of new employees and contractors (a serious concern in an age of cyber terrorism), insufficient staff recruitment and training, and arbitrary mandatory overtime policies resulting in fatigued workers in perilous jobs such as linemen. Electric utilities need to recognize the special requirements of a 21st century workforce. The electric grid is the most complicated machine ever devised, so we are courting disaster unless sufficient numbers of people are at the controls who have been carefully chosen and trained.

Nearly all of Illinois’ energy is produced by nuclear (51 percent) or coal (45 percent) plants. Just one-half of 1 percent of Illinois’ energy comes from renewable sources, compared to 12 percent in California. The Task Force urged that Illinois require electric utilities to produce or buy such “all-American” renewable energy sources as wind, solar and biomass. The Task Force urged increased investment in wind power, whose potential in Illinois has gone untapped.

We need to be more efficient. Illinois spends only 33 cents per capita for such programs as rebates on energy efficient appliances and energy education, far under the national average ($3.88 per capita). So, the Task Force urged that Illinois’ energy efficiency program spending per capita be brought at least to the national average, and tougher efficiency standards for some appliances. And consumers should be able to control their energy usage and costs with innovative “price response programs.”

Finally, the Task Force urged more emergency preparedness by everyone and greater public awareness. Utilities will be asked to provide links on their Web sites and in billing materials to sites hosted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (www.ready.gov) and American Red Cross (www.redcross.org). www.BlackoutSolutions.org will stay up-and-running, so I invite everyone to visit and offer reaction to the Task Force report.

Pat Quinn is the chairman of Special Task Force on the Condition and Future of the Illinois Energy Infrastructure.

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