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'No clue'


FirstEnergy CEO H. Peter Burg's insis tence - indeed, the firm belief in his "heart of hearts" - that his utility company was not responsible for last month's enormous blackout is easy to understand. He may even turn out to be correct. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many things were amiss on the electrical grids of the Midwest and Northeast before a cascade of failures left parts of eight states and one Canadian province without power on the afternoon of Aug. 14.

But there is no way to sift through the growing pile of reports about that day's events, much of it supplied by the once-tightknit fraternity of utility companies, without feeling that FirstEnergy was at best the victim of events that it neither understood nor could stem. At worst, Northeast Ohio's premier supplier of electricity may have allowed a dangerous situation to develop by haphazard maintenance of its power lines, then to mushroom beyond control by its failure to alert other grid users to the growing storm in its sector.

Neither feeling inspires confidence in a firm of critical importance to this region's economic future.

Nor does the unfolding investigation, which government and industry officials caution may take months to complete and analyze, sustain faith in those bodies that are supposed to monitor and regulate this state's utilities.

Transcripts released last week of conversations between the regional transmission organization that monitors the electrical grid in Northeast Ohio and FirstEnergy operators detail a system that was out of control that Thursday. Engineers at the Midwest Independent Systems Operator in Indiana noted mounting problems in Northeast Ohio, but their counterparts at FirstEnergy could provide little illumination or help.

"We have no clue," said one FirstEnergy engineer, conceding that his company's computers were not working. "We don't even know the status of the stuff around us."

For its part, MISO had neither the authority nor the capacity to act on its own. Unlike other regional transmission groups, it could not order members to isolate themselves from the grid or break off connections from its central operations center. Instead, as detailed in other transcripts released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, MISO engineers were reduced to cajoling utilities to act.

That is intolerable. Put aside for now the divisive question of whether deregulation of electricity sales is a good idea. Having an electrical grid whose standards and maintenance are left to happenstance makes no sense. Air travel was deregulated two decades ago. But the federal government still runs the air traffic control system and enforces safety standards for airports. Why should electricity be different? Regional transmission groups can be part of a federal system, but they must have clear reliability guidelines and unquestioned authority to act for the greater public good. In addition, they must be fully accountable for their decisions.

By the same token, state regulators, notably in Ohio, need to reassert themselves. Some consumer groups are only half-kidding when they suggest dropping the first word from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's title. The PUCO, they suggest with much justification, has grown increasingly reluctant to force utilities in Ohio to meet maintenance and other obligations or to shine a public light on their shortcomings. Ohioans deserve better.

The Ohio Manufacturers Association estimates that the blackout cost this state's factories $1 billion. The outage also may have sent a signal to potential investors to stay away from Ohio because its electrical system is unreliable. That impression must not prevail. If Ohio utilities, regulators and political leaders do not understand that, then they, too, have no clue.

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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