ASHINGTON, Nov. 19 — The largest blackout in
North American history was set off by a series of human and computer
failures at an Ohio power company, where workers could not act to
halt an escalating crisis because they did not even know it existed,
a panel of government and industry officials reported on
The report says that, even some 20 minutes before the lights went
out from Detroit to New York City on Aug. 14, the blackout could
have been safely contained if not for the utility's malfunctioning
computers and inadequately trained control room workers.
The report found that the utility, FirstEnergy, and the regional
agency that was supposed to be overseeing it, the Midwest
Independent Transmission System Operator, also failed to contact
neighboring power companies as the system unraveled, a violation of
one of the essential rules governing the operation of the nation's
power grid. And the government officials who released the report
charged that the worsening series of transmission line failures that
drove the wider collapse of power were the result in part of a
failure by FirstEnergy to do the most basic maintenance of the
company's transmission lines — namely the trimming of trees
underneath and alongside the lines.
At each turn on Aug. 14, the 124-page document says, human
inaction made matters worse, until a system collapse struck with
such force and speed that it surged from Ohio into Michigan, Ontario
and New York in a matter of seconds.
"This blackout was largely preventable," said Energy Secretary
Spencer Abraham, who headed the inquiry, along with Herbert
Dhaliwal, the Canadian minister of natural resources. "A number of
relatively small problems combined to create a very big one."
The blackout spread through eight states and vast parts of
Ontario, disrupting the lives of millions of people and inflicting
billions of dollars in economic losses.
Mr. Abraham and Mr. Dhaliwal, in releasing the most definitive
official account of the calamity to date, repeatedly emphasized the
need for an enforceable set of operating standards for the
electrical grid, with violations punishable by monetary penalties,
for power companies and the entities that supervise them,
independent system operators.
"If the voluntary reliability standards had been complied with,
we wouldn't have had a problem," Mr. Dhaliwal said. Describing the
grid as a chain of connected systems, he said, "We have to make sure
we don't have weak links in the chain that affect others."
The energy bill passed by the House on Monday would allow for an
enforceable set of rules, to be drafted by an industry group, the
North American Electric Reliability Council. (Mr. Abraham and Mr.
Dhaliwal said they favored enforceable standards but their report
today had no recommendations. Those will come later this year at the
earliest, they said.) It would also give the council the power to
audit the practices of power companies and system operators, which
Michehl R. Gent, the group's president, said was more important than
penalties. "I'm into performance, not fines," he said.
Mr. Gent said the blackout also showed that his group's rules
needed to be more explicit about requiring that power companies and
I.S.O.'s have sophisticated, comprehensive computer systems for
monitoring their power lines and detecting problems. The Midwest
I.S.O., a relatively new agency, has less effective systems than its
counterparts in the Northeast.
Mr. Abraham repeatedly declined to answer questions about what
penalty, if any, FirstEnergy might or should face, adding that it
might be up to state regulators. But with the report putting the
blame so squarely on FirstEnergy, others jumped in. Saying that
"FirstEnergy needs to be held accountable," Representative Eliot L.
Engel of New York said the company should pay reparations to power
companies, so that they can, in turn, reimburse customers for their