Thursday, November 20, 2003

Blackout blamed on FirstEnergy errors

By H. Josef Hebert, The Associated Press
and Mike Boyer, The Cincinnati Enquirer

WASHINGTON - The nation's worst blackout began with three power line failures in northern Ohio and should have been contained by operators at FirstEnergy Corp., a three-month investigation concluded Wednesday.

The report by a U.S.-Canadian task force said the FirstEnergy operators did not respond properly, allowing the Aug. 14 outage to cascade, eventually cutting off electricity to 50 million people in eight states and Canada.

The U.S.-Canadian task force will hold hearings in the United States and Canada, so others can respond to the report. The task force will issue recommendations on management of the electricity grid and how to avoid future blackouts. It is expected to issue a final report by the end of the year.
The task force also cited outdated procedures and shortcomings at a regional grid-monitoring center in Indiana that kept officials there from grasping the danger and helping FirstEnergy deal with it.

"This blackout was largely preventable," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.

Alan Schriber, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and a task force member, said the report shouldn't "have any effect on Cincinnati rate payers."

Schriber, who lives in Wyoming, said, "This is largely a transmission issue, which doesn't translate directly to retail rates.''

In about three months, the task force will make recommendations on corrective actions.

"We need mandatory rules,'' Schriber said. "All the rules are voluntary now, and no one has authority to enforce them."

A spokeswoman for the Office of Ohio Consumers' Counsel agreed that the rules of government regional transmission organizations need to be mandatory.

The energy bill working its way through Congress would make transmission rules mandatory. The other question is who enforces them.

Schriber said they should be enforced by state utility commissions.

Meanwhile, Cinergy Corp. said it was pleased that the task force found no connection between a small outage in its Indiana system earlier in the day and the larger Northeast blackout.

The task force said it found "no computer viruses or any sort of illicit cyber activities" to blame. It also concluded that there was no deliberate damage or tampering with equipment.

Among the faults found at FirstEnergy, however, was a simple failure to keep trees around power lines trimmed.

Schriber said the commission, possibly next week, would ask FirstEnergy to make changes to fix the problems that led to the blackout.

FirstEnergy, the nation's fourth-largest investor-owned utility company, had no immediate comment on the report. The company, based in Akron, has maintained that its problems were but some of many in the Midwest power grid on the day of the blackout and that it should not be singled out.

The task force report cites the failure of a FirstEnergy line near Cleveland, followed by problems with two of its other lines, as the "initial events" of the blackout.

The loss of the three lines caused too much electricity to flow into nearby lines, causing an overload. Because those lines were not prepared for the sudden increase in power, the system became unstable as the balance between available power and demand deteriorated, the report said.

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