IEEE Reliability Society Newsletter     Vol. 61, No. 1, February 2015

Table of Contents

Front page:

President's Message

From the Editor

Society News:

RS Banquet at RAMS: Lifetime Achievement and Engineer of the Year Awards

RS Banquet at RAMS: New ExCom Slate and AdCom Electees

Members & Chapters

Boston Chapter

Dallas Chapter

Arizona Chapter

RS Chapter Outreach: China

Meetings & Conferences

Call for Abstracts: 2015 ASTR Conference, Boston, MA

Announcing 2015 IRPS, Monterrey, CA

PHM-2015 Announced: Austin, TX

Call for Papers: 2015 QRS, Vancouver, Canada

Letters in Reliability

Revisiting Perception of Reliability: Uninteroperability in US Power Grid


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Revisiting Perception of Reliability:
Continuing Uninteroperability in the United States Electric Power Grid

Dr. Robert Mathews, D.Phil.
Distinguished Senior Research Scholar -
National Security Affairs & U.S. Industrial Preparedness
Office of Scientific Inquiry & Applications
University of Hawai’i

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
—Upton Sinclair



In June 2007, the Chair of IEEE-USA’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee made a request of this author, to pen a monograph, which was to be a distillation of wide-ranging evaluations performed to that point, relating to the Interoperability and Reliability of the United States Electric Power Grid.  Since the publication of “Interoperability: A Review of Activities to Ensure the Reliability of the U.S. Electric Power Grid,” numerous parties external to IEEE-USA, and from the IEEE Community around the World have, as a matter of course, have enquired over the years of the possibility of originating a follow-up publication; one that could possibly assist Organizational Arrangement and Resources Allocation planning considerations.  Underprovided with the proper Occasion (time) however, and In lieu of a more thorough follow-up, this brief thought-piece is hereby offered.


In the Republic of India, a regional power outage that began on 30 July 2012 quickly cascaded to engulf 22 of its 28 States, drenching 700 million people in sweat during the height of summer’s heat and humidity.  Nearly 10 percent of the World’s populations went on without electricity, in what later became known as the World’s largest power outage.  In a nation where rampant corruption mis-appropriation of resources, teeming governmental bureaucracies, perverse labor unions, and inadequately skilled labor supplies and outputs among other factors routinely hamper the mere maintenance in the Energy Sector, this was a disaster waiting to happen.  

While India has consistently struggled to thrive in the 21st Century, battling assorted post-colonial ghosts, political and economic maladjustments, we in the United States, have not had to contend historically with the types, or scales of India’s Energy Sector problems.  Still, since 14 August 2003, when populations were stricken by the largest Electrical Blackout in U.S. history, and by the ensuing economic cost to the nation, billions of dollars were spent by U.S. Government and those in the Electric Power Industry subsequently, to jettison the prospect of such an event from ever happening again.  Yet, even now, blackouts are more a matter of people’s reality, than it is not. 

An electrical linesman repairs cables in the middle of a spider web of illegal wiring around the main cables in Allahabad, India.  Theft of Electrical Power is a frequent phenomenon in Indian towns.  -- AP Photo by Rajesh Kumar Singh

During the early morning hours of 1 February 2011, a series of events would unravel, forcing 4.4 million people in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona to experience electricity blackouts, as a result of an ‘expected spat’ with cold weather, the subsequent weather related shortages in natural gas production and its conveyance to responsible power generating units.  Eventhough the sweeping cold weather was predicted in advance, utilities were unacceptably unprepared to weather through this anticipated climate event.  Later the same year, on the afternoon of 8 September, an 11-minute “system disturbance” in the South Western U.S. led to a cascading set of events that caused a power outage for 2.7 million people in Arizona, Southern California, and Baja California, Mexico.  Moreover, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy paralyzed fuel distribution networks and flooded electric substations; causing more than 8.5 million Customers to lose Power in 17 U.S. States. 

Surely, these outages cannot compare to the event in India which dunked nearly 700 million into darkness, so why should there be any cause for alarm?  There should be a cause for alarm, and repeated calls for action because our national expectations, and our population needs, are both vastly different than of India. 

Up until recently, we have been the World’s largest economy, and we now have a diverse Digital Economy with a broad range of participants for whom – their very existence compels the existence of reliable, qualitative, and affordable Electric Power system and associated structures.

In general however,, and despite enormous investments in the United States, protracted and costly outage events recur; why do they?  Why is society forced to endure widespread disruptions, and enormous financial losses within our economy?

“Must Have” Deliberations:

As posed originally in the IEEE-USA monograph of 2007, do these failures present ‘cases of lessons learned — or lessons unlearned?’  Careful observations of failure events divulge a rather importunate reality.

"There are no innocent bystanders in life.  There are only people guilty of bystanding.” 
– Random Observations [Hill, Ivan; “How To Make America More Honest:  A Do It Yourself Handbook For Everyday Ethics.”]

Large-scale distributed systems fail for three primary reasons.  Failures are primarily due to, 1) a breakdown of critical system component(s) that initiate uncontrollable cascading failures; 2) human/operator error; and 3) design/operations oriented failure, where the lack of a comprehensive systems approach in design and operations - shroud critical aspects of “systems” from decisioning & control elements, permitting the presence of anomalies and undesirable output conditions.  Each of the above three factors - can effectively be moderated.  However, the PROSPECT of moderating, and the POWER to act on the PROSPECT to moderate, rests in the hands of those who hold widely differentiated views of what the PROSPECT to moderate, and POWER to act are, respectively.  Hence, since the great blackout of 1965, in the place of originally recommended ‘required actions’ to be instituted by industry and government - what now exist - are widespread examples of injudicious and wasteful activities, carried on unimpeded, and incentivized by the elephantine tendency to create vacuous yields, generating little new information (if any), related to U.S. Electric Power Grid Reliability.

Many reports have been written regarding the ‘Unreliability of the United States Electric Power Grid’ – since its nascency.  Even so, much of the reportage and recommendations have fallen on deaf-ears.  The condition of U.S. Electric Infrastructure is such that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) once estimated Power Loss related cost-of-reliability to the U.S. economy to be as high as $400 billion per year.  Additionally, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) once stated that the U.S. economy is losing as much as $164 billion a year in just outages, and as much as $24 billion/Yr., in power quality phenomena related events.  

Any nation that concerns itself with suitably provisioning requisite fuels to power strategically its economic trajectory, and its competence, will take the necessary measures to sanction and empower that competition.  On the other hand, if actions are not taken wisely, end-results will speak for themselves.  The cold hard reality is, when all functional and performance aspects of large-scale, complex and highly distributed systems are not well-understood, unexplained  failures result.  The fact that someone, at some time, concluded that “failed systems” - were believed to have been supported by protective modes, contingencies, redundancies, and to be highly interoperable — is of little value — in the midst of continuing failures. 

It is at the intersection of “unanticipated failure events,” and their “causality,” one begins to appreciate just how poorly systems are presently understood, planned for, designed, built, deployed, managed and maintained.  It is high-time that society examined and discussed the underlying causes of failure events – critically reflecting upon our part in such failures;  particularly as it relates to that which seems to be an innate tendency to remain uninformed, excuse - proscribed behaviors, and/or condone “busy-work” and inactivity.

Still, we find ourselves short, even of slightly firmer footing - to why there exists a continued difference between the “talk” about Reliability, and the “walk” about Reliability.  It is regarding this durable inconsistency, this author now desire to congregate a few thoughts.

The Apposite Cognitive Orientation Necessary to Gauge Notions of Reliability Within The U.S. Electric Power Grid

The durable inconsistency that is the difference between the “talk” about Reliability, and the “walk” about Reliability could perhaps be understood more - philosophically.  The Works of Martin Heidegger (considering NOT his political failings, but scholarship only), and Martin Zimmerman’s interpretation of Heidegger’s Works, could potentially provide certain insight. 

Heidegger has documented that basic to our “Being,” is that “intelligibility [the quality or condition of being intelligible; capability of being understood] is correlative with those skills that make up human background practices or customs.”  Additionally, extending the Philosophical contributions of Heidegger, Martin Zimmerman has said,

Ontological issues pertain to the ‘Being’ of entities, to that, what, and how they are.  Every culture has a common way of understanding what things are, although this ontology is often so pervasive that people are unaware that they have a particular way of apprehending things.  Usually, we think things really are the way they appear to us.  But this naïve idea doesn't stand up to critical scrutiny;  the  fact  is  that how things appear is determined to some extent by the ontological paradigm in the light of which they are seen.

It is about ‘the particular way that we apprehend things,’ and how that understanding is used to drive action, this brief concluding commentary will concern itself. 

Accordingly then, and even by the slightest allusion, more accurately, the attention of all must be drawn ontologically to the nature of “Reliability.”  The manner in which, one could ontologically apprehend the ‘Being’ (in this case, any notion of Reliability), requires the proper assembly of one’s faculties.  Without which, and as Zimmerman indicates above, “all apprehending” related to the subject of Reliability – would fail to hold-up to critical scrutiny.   

Eligible Reasoning & Conclusion

Referring to the notations by Zimmerman above, we learn from his suggestion that there is a prevailing human propensity to accept what superficially presents; eventhough there is in the adjacent, Ontological clarity present.  Instead, the constitution of the dominant culture, the “skills that make up human background practices or customs,” becomes the prism that bends the stream of light;  our apprehension of that which ‘we see,’ in this case.  Therefore, if, and when, Ontological Construction and Representation of Reliability is to be considered with poorly organized reasoning, query and analytical skills, there is a surety that “an objective, or goal,” will be missed.  This observation goes to the heart - why many of our organizations do not succeed, and why it is in fact, we are not organized to succeed.  At the heart of many “failure to succeed” legacies - lie a loss of prioritization of mission, or a significant enough diversion from missions.  Additional reasons behind failures could be the obscuring of a purposeful vision and loss of unity behind vision;  the inability of organizations to remain converged and focused on stated objectives;  the commitment to plan for, and allocate appropriate resources; and the failure to properly manage operations, and to guide and direct efforts to stated objectives.

Meanwhile, it might interest some to note that co new Indian Prime Minister has pledged to end all Electrical Power related problems on the Sub-Continent by 2022.  As to whether that will ever be a reality, or to whether the U.S. Electric Power Grid will achieve sufficient national Interoperability,  we would have to delve into a detailed examination of Heidegger’s propositions regarding an Authentic, and Inauthentic existence.