The main obstacle to building new transmission lines is siting, better known as the "not in my backyard" effect: Nobody wants power lines near them. One potential way of getting around that is so-called smart metering—hourly readouts of electricity usage that allow utilities to offer price discounts on power during off-peak times. Pilot smart-metering programs are under way in Idaho, California and other states.
Mansoor notes that advanced metering tools might become useful given the potential for increasingly intermittent power sources. Wind power, for example, stops and starts with the breeze, which means system operators would have to adjust the load to compensate. Although wind energy accounts for 19.5 gigawatts of power in the U.S., or less than 2 percent of total power generation, it represented 35 percent of new generating capacity installed in 2007, up from 5 percent in 2003.
An alternative to power lines in cities and other urban areas is power cables based on high-temperature superconductor (HTS) technology. When chilled to –321 degrees Fahrenheit (77 kelvins, or –196 degrees Celsius) the composite material yttrium barium copper oxide begins to carry a current with almost zero resistance. HTS power cables can therefore be made smaller than the copper kind.
In a concept called the secure supergrid, would bolster existing transmission lines and would resist the stresses that can cause blackouts, because the lines shut down when the current spikes (reflecting the "almost" in an HTS cable's "almost zero resistance"). Some researchers have proposed combining an HTS supergrid with a coast-to-coast hydrogen pipeline to suppy fuel cells for cars and homes.
The Long Island Power Authority switched on a $50-million, 69-kilovolt HTS system in April to supply power to up to 300,000 homes. Consolidated Edison Company of New York and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have commissioned cables for a $40-million supergrid system in downtown Manhattan known as Project Hydra, scheduled for operation in 2010.
None of these tools would guarantee the extinction of large blackouts. When researchers study very complex systems, whether they be power grids or sandpiles, they often find a simple relationship: The frequency of larger and larger catastrophes—such as blackouts or avalanches—remains relatively high. "If you look at all the steps that have been taken since 2003, I think overall the risk is less today than it was in 2003," Mansoor says. "But the risk is always there."
*Correction (8/14/08): This article originally stated that FERC has approved 83 new reliability standards; that number refers to the first standards to take effect in June 18, 2007.