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Task Force Reports on Failures Behind Blackout

Times Staff Writer

The massive Northeast blackout on Aug. 14 could have been prevented, but FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio and the Midwest grid operator in Indiana failed to detect emerging problems that ultimately left 50 million people without power, a U.S.-Canadian task force said Wednesday.

The official conclusion, following a three-month investigation, laid much of the blame for the debacle on FirstEnergy, where a nonworking control-room alarm left operators unaware that three high-voltage lines had gone out of service after contact with trees.

As a result, control room operators “took no action” that might have contained the outage.

The blackout “was largely preventable ... " said U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. “Once the problem grew to a certain magnitude, nothing could have been done to prevent it from cascading out of control.”

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The blackout affected eight eastern states and Ontario, costing $6 billion or more by some estimates. It prompted a debate about the adequacy of the nation’s electricity grid and the voluntary rules that govern it.

Wednesday’s report highlighted human and equipment failures behind the outage and prompted new demands to tighten the standards for transmission of electricity. A bill that passed the House Tuesday would require enforceable standards, but the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, which began debate Wednesday.

“Without the mandatory reliability electricity provisions in our bill, many of the problems discovered by investigators are certain to be repeated time and time again in the future,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.). “Clearly, the American public will not tolerate this, and neither should Congress.”

In a statement, Akron-based FirstEnergy criticized the government report for failing to provide “a complete and comprehensive picture.” It said the report did not sufficiently consider “underlying causes” of the blackout, such as growing demands on the electricity grid.

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“We remain convinced that the outage cannot be explained by events on any one utility system,” declared Anthony J. Alexander, FirstEnergy’s president and chief operating officer. He added: “Our transmission system was designed and built to provide reliable service to our customers, not be a superhighway for long-distance transactions to Canada and elsewhere.”

The report concluded that if FirstEnergy’s control room operators had been aware of the initial problem, they could have taken various actions to curb it, such as informing other utilities or reducing the amount of power sloshing through the grid in destabilizing waves.

Overburdened by excess power, the system started to become shaky early in the afternoon. Nearby lines began to overload and break down as the amount of electricity increasingly exceeded the demand.

Yet as the failures spread, the Midwest System Operator, which is supposed to coordinate transmission in the region, was relying on outdated information and failing to make the best use of technology. In one case, a technician failed to properly restore a piece of equipment that updates data every five minutes after the device had been serviced earlier in the day.

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“Thinking the system had been successfully restored, the analyst went to lunch,” the report said.

The task force concluded that FirstEnergy did not follow at least four of the industry’s reliability standards, and that the Midwest System Operator did not follow two of them. The voluntary standards are set by the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.

For example, FirstEnergy did not react to a power line failure within 30 minutes or warn neighboring systems of its problems. Similarly, the Midwest operator failed to communicate sufficiently with a neighboring grid operator.

“These failures helped create a problem of such magnitude as to be insurmountable,” Abraham said Wednesday.

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For all that, the power outage was still manageable for about 3 1/2 hours after the initial contact between the high-voltage lines and the trees, investigators concluded.

If FirstEnergy had slashed its electrical load in the vicinity of Cleveland and Akron, the broader problems might have been averted. But as failures mounted, including a critical transmission line affecting Northern Ohio, the system became much more unstable. At 4:06 p.m. it fell into an out-of-control cascade of outages spreading regionally and affecting millions.

“Within seven minutes the blackout rippled from the Akron area across much of the northeast United States and Canada,” the report said. All together, 263 power plants crashed.

The task force said that it did not find any sign of terrorism or deliberate tampering.

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As at least one analyst saw it, the problems highlighted in Wednesday’s report reflect what is happening throughout the U.S. electrical grid.

“The problems are very broad-based in the industry,” maintained Judah Rose, a managing director with ICF Consulting in Fairfax, Va., who specializes in the electrical power industry. “Who’s in charge? What rules are there? Who enforces the rules? How is the industry actually run? All of these issues are not settled, even today.”


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