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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - April 15 1998

and the more power you will lose. Beaumont to Bangor may look attractive on paper, but when you add up the losses, and add them to the price, the savings may disappear.

MYTH #5: WE DON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT VARS (em AFTER ALL, THEY'RE IMAGINARY! Reality: VARs don't travel well; they're lost at a rate about 10 times higher than watts. Although they're "imaginary" in the mathematical sense, they are essential to the transmission of power. VARs hold the voltage up like the poles hold the wires up. Furthermore, since VAR losses are proportional to the square of the current, they increase exponentially as power flow increases. VARs are like the water in a steam locomotive; it doesn't provide any of the energy to pull the train (the coal or oil does that), but the train will not get anywhere without water to convert to steam.

MYTH #4: TRANSMISSION OWNERS CONTROL RELIABILITY CRITERIA TO ELIMINATE COMPETITION. Reality: There may be a few examples of a vertically integrated utility trying to control reliability criteria, but both the past and the future indicate this will not prove a significant problem. The reliability infrastructure in place today had its genesis in crisis. The Northeast Blackout of 1965 both traumatized executives in large portions of the industry and compelled them to make reliability a priority. The stringent planning and operating criteria that followed have survived the test of time and have served the customers well. Executives were committed to the principles of reliability, and to the coordination and cooperation necessary to assure it. Engineers and other technical experts became its guardians. But most important, perhaps, is the fact that this structure is nothing new; it's been the case since the 1960s, long before competition and open access were issues.

In the future, when traditional utilities have divested themselves of their generating assets, the transmission owners will be the most sorely tempted to lower reliability standards. Since their major source of income will be transmission usage fees, there will be a real financial incentive to make criteria less stringent (em even at the risk of blackouts.

MYTH #3: TODAY'S RELIABILITY CRITERIA ARE TOO STRINGENT AND RESTRICTIVE. Reality: Today's transmission criteria are based on the ability to survive, without blackouts or loss of customer load, the "worst single contingency." This standard holds true universally across North America and throughout most of the developed world. You can't just make the system "a little less reliable." You either design it to survive the worst single contingency, or you don't; there's no in between. It's a quantum kind of thing. Some have suggested that transmission criteria should be based on probability rather than the present deterministic principles. Actually, industry experts have been working on developing a practical system for more than 30 years but so far have experienced limited success. The problem is that the probability of any single event approaches zero, while the number of possible events approaches infinity.

The larger problem with relaxing reliability standards is a human inclination best described in Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman's