08/15/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

The Nation's Electric Grid: Looking Back at 2003 and How Far We've Come

Ten years ago, an estimated 50 million people across the Midwest and Northeast and into Canada lost their power. The blackout of 2003, which resulted in hardship and economic losses estimated to be between $4 and $10 billion, and riveted the rest of the nation, was a wake-up call. The nation's complex critical infrastructure that powers our modern society and economy needed work.

A joint U.S.-Canada Task Force chaired by the Energy Department's Secretary and the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources determined the blackout's causes -- an unfortunate convergence of events that quickly cascaded -- and recommended 46 actions to improve the reliability of the North American power system. One of the most important recommendations was to make reliability standards mandatory, with penalties for non-compliance. Many of the recommendations, including the need for mandatory reliability standards, were integrated into legislation passed by Congress and enacted in 2005 and also in 2007.

Since 2003, the Federal government and the electric industry have made significant investments that have enhanced the reliability of the nation's electric grid. Under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Energy Department invested approximately $4.5 billion in grid modernization, matched by private funding to total $9.5 billion. These investments have spurred the deployment of next-generation technologies and tools that are being used to modernize all of the major segments of the electric delivery system. These technologies are helping the electricity industry detect and minimize system problems, and better manage and respond to disruptions, leading to reduced outages and restoration times.

In the West, for example, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council is installing an extensive network of advanced sensors known as synchrophasors across the Western Interconnection, increasing reliability and system performance, and enabling greater use of intermittent renewable resources such as solar and wind. These synchrophasors help utilities monitor the grid to better gauge its health, and respond to deteriorating or abnormal conditions more quickly. A new report from the Energy Department explains how 12 Recovery Act-funded recipients are installing these devices across the country and are beginning to use various applications for managing system operations and doing post-event forensic analysis.

At the same time, the Energy Department continues to invest in the research and development of a wide range of smart grid technologies, including energy storage, microgrids, and power electronics. The Department is also supporting the development of advanced grid modeling methods that will allow for the simulation of dynamic events and help inform operators on real-time conditions to maintain stability.

While the nation has made significant progress in improving the reliability and resiliency of the nation's electric grid, much remains to be done, including additional investments from both the public and private sectors - especially in light of the challenges that we now face with climate change. The Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages report issued earlier this week by the White House Council of Economic Advisors and the Energy Department, for example, finds that grid resilience is increasingly important as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather and estimates the economic impact of power outages on the nation's economy. The President's Climate Action Plan calls for upgrading the country's electric grid to help make electricity more reliable, save consumers money on their energy bills, and promote clean energy sources.

We are a nation with a history of looking at what needs to be done, learning from our experiences, and then taking action. We must -- and we will -- continue doing what needs to be done so that our nation is prepared to meet these evolving challenges.