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Progress on preventing blackouts

Mandatory rules governing the reliability of the US power grid go into effect Monday.

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The average US electricity customer loses power for more than three hours annually – outages that cost the US economy about $80 billion.

That may be about to change.

America's power grid has a new cop on the beat, ready to slap stiff fines on power companies that don't meet new national standards for grid reliability. The standards become mandatory on Monday.

Reliance on voluntary guidelines and collegial cooperation among power companies is out. Fines of as much as $1 million a day are in – levied by the North American Reliability Corp. (NERC), which is freshly armed with a federal mandate.

Some say Monday marks a new generation of better reliability for wholesale electric power trading, with NERC as lead enforcer overseeing eight regional enforcement units.

Others, though, question whether the new cop will provide aggressive enough enforcement of the new rules on power-grid reliability.

"There's a very strong push within NERC to water down these new standards to make them less stringent," says George Loehr, a member of the executive committee of the New York State Reliability Council, an advisory body that oversees the state's grid reliability. "After the 2003 blackout I thought, well, at least we won't have to worry about that sort of thing anymore. I was very naive."

That 2003 blackout in the dog days of August plunged much of the Northeast and 50 million people into darkness. Lasting four days in parts of eight states and Ontario, it cost the US and Canada at least $4 billion. After that, Congress got tough – or tried to.

Though the US Department of Energy endorsed mandatory reliability standards back in 1997, it took the 2003 blackout to push Congress into passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005. As a result, more than 100 guidelines have been updated and transformed into stiff requirements.

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