Article published Sunday, August 17, 2003|
Power failure began in Ohio
Attention turns to FirstEnergy's power
By TOM HENRY
FirstEnergy Corp. said last night that it had
electrical transmission lines in the Cleveland area failing on the
verge of the nation’s worst power blackout, and admitted that an
alarm system that would have alerted the utility to greater problems
was not working.
The alarm system could have helped identify
voltage irregularities and other problems on its transmission
"Yes, we were aware it was out," Ralph DiNicola, the
utility’s public relations director, said. He refused to say how
long or why it was out. "I’m not going to play that game. That’s
part of the investigation," he said.
However, a computerized
system for monitoring and controlling FirstEnergy’s transmission and
generation system was working.
The head of a nonprofit group
that industry has put in charge of overseeing the electric
transmission system said yesterday that northern Ohio appears to
have been the epicenter of the blackout.
"We are now fairly
certain this disturbance started in Ohio," said Michehl R. Gent, the
president and chief executive officer of the North American Electric
"We are now trying to determine why this
situation was not brought under control after the first three
transmission lines relayed out of service. We will get to the bottom
of this," he said.
FirstEnergy, the parent company of Toledo
Edison, said it did not experience a service interruption or notice
anything amiss that could have tipped it off in time to isolate the
"Based on what we know, isolation of our system
wasn’t called for," Kristen Baird, another spokesman for the
FirstEnergy officials said the company was in
no way admitting responsibility for the outage, which knocked out
service for 50 million people in eight states and parts of
It cited Midwest Independent System Operator records
that show a number of other transmission line trips beyond
FirstEnergy’s system had occurred at about the same time throughout
Officials from the Midwest ISO, who oversee the
regional transmission grid, have stated that transmission lines were
tripping nearly simultaneously in Ohio, New York, and
"There were lines that were going out at other
places, too. At the time, you don’t know what the right answer is,"
Jim Torgerson, Midwest ISO president and chief executive officer,
told The Blade yesterday. "Had FirstEnergy disconnected, it might
have caused the same problem that occurred in the end."
Midwest ISO’s monitoring system apparently was working. "We manually
intervene all the time," Mr. Torgerson said.
With records of
events leading up to the outage becoming widely circulated in the
media yesterday, FirstEnergy executives huddled privately to
determine the utility’s next moves. Lunches were taken in to the
company’s headquarters in Akron. Entry to the building was strictly
"These are very complex issues that will take
time to analyze and work through," according to a prepared statement
from H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy chairman and chief executive
"We are committed to working with the North American
Electric Reliability Council and everyone else involved in the
effort to determine exactly what events in the entire affected
region led to the outage and to help in efforts to ensure this does
not happen again," the statement said.
U.S. Rep. Dennis
Kucinich (D., Cleveland), a harsh critic of FirstEnergy, said that
the nation’s fourth largest investor-owned electric utility could
face "grave consequences" if it ends up being implicated for the
nation’s worst power outage.
"If the same company that tried
to cover up serious defects at a nuclear reactor is also responsible
for precipitating a blackout that denied service to 50 million
people, I think that’s a problem," Mr. Kucinich
Repairing the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, which
has been off-line since February, 2002, has cost FirstEnergy at
least $470 million. The company is facing allegations of
mismanagement that led to the problems at the plant near Oak Harbor,
A task force of U.S. and Canadian officials was being
formed to do more investigation. It is to include U.S. Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham and Canadian Natural Resources Minister
Congressional hearings are planned for
While the actual blackout occurred at 4:11 p.m.
Thursday, here are some key problems that occurred earlier that
2 p.m. - FirstEnergy’s Eastlake Unit 5, a 680-megawatt coal
generation plant in Eastlake, Ohio, trips off. On a hot summer
afternoon, "that wasn’t a unique event in and of itself," said Mr.
DiNicola. "We had some transmission lines out of service and the
Eastlake system tripped out of service, but we didn’t have any
outages related to those events."
3:06 p.m. - FirstEnergy’s Chamberlain-Harding power transmission
line, a 345-kilovolt power line in northeastern Ohio, trips. The
company hasn’t reported a cause, but the outage put extra strain on
FirstEnergy’s Hanna-Juniper line, the next to go dark.
3:32 p.m. - Extra power coursing through FirstEnergy’s
Hanna-Juniper 345-kilovolt line heats the wires, causing them to sag
into a tree and trip.
3:41 p.m. - An overload on First Energy’s Star-South Canton
345-kilovolt line trips a breaker at the Star switching station,
where FirstEnergy’s grid interconnects with a neighboring grid owned
by the American Electric Power Co. AEP’s Star station also is in
3:46 p.m. - AEP’s 345-kilovolt Tidd-Canton Control transmission
line also trips where it interconnects with FirstEnergy’s grid, at
AEP’s connection station in Canton.
4:06 p.m. - FirstEnergy’s Sammis-Star 345-kilovolt line, also in
northeast Ohio, trips, then reconnects.
4:08 p.m. - Utilities in Canada and the eastern United States
see wild power swings. "It was a hopscotch event, not a big
cascading domino effect," said Sean O’Leary, chief executive of
Genscape, a company that monitors electric transmissions.
4:09 p.m. - The already lowered voltage coursing to customers of
Cleveland Public Power, inside the city of Cleveland, plummets to
zero. "It was like taking a light switch and turning it off," said
Jim Majer, commissioner of Cleveland Public Power. "It was like a
heart attack. It went straight down from 300 megawatts to
4:10 to 4:25 p.m. - Power plants and high-voltage electric
transmission lines in Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and
Ontario shut down.
More than 100 power plants, including 22
nuclear reactors in the United States and Canada, were shut down to
protect them from damage that could have come from power surges.
Most of the shutdowns occurred by safety systems that were
Industry officials are trying to
understand why the failure of the lines in the Cleveland area caused
the service disruption to spread throughout much of the Northeast,
the Midwest, and Ontario. The transmission system was supposed to
isolate problems, Mr. Gent said.
"The system has been
designed and rules have been created to prevent this escalation and
cascading," Mr. Gent said.
Mr. Kucinich, who is seeking the
Democratic presidential nomination, said: "I think this is a time to
be very cautious about drawing conclusions, because the implications
of this are so severe."
"But there’s nothing anyone can say
that will speak more lively than FirstEnergy’s inability to protect
the public’s safety and convenience. So again, I want to be cautious
about drawing any conclusions where this takes them."
Kucinich petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 3 to
revoke the utility’s operating license at Davis-Besse, alleging the
company repeatedly has lied or distorted facts about the extent of
damage at the troubled nuclear plant.
Although the NRC has
cited FirstEnergy for several violations of inaccurate or incomplete
information throughout the ordeal, it denied Mr. Kucinich’s
petition. In July, the congressman appealed that decision and
renewed his request.
Blade staff writer Jon Chavez and
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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