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Business News

Computers crashed just before blackout

08/28/03

John Funk Teresa Dixon Murray and Tom Breckenridge
Plain Dealer Reporters

FirstEnergy Corp. could not see mounting transmission line problems in the crucial hour before the Aug. 14 blackout because its key computers were down, according to at least two municipal electric systems.

Whether the computer troubles were the result of hardware or software problems was not known yesterday. Investigators from the Department of Energy have visited the utility's Akron control center, said spokesman Ralph DiNicola.

FirstEnergy is detailing how the control center computers operated that day for the DOE, said DiNicola. He repeatedly declined to say whether there were any computer problems.

"We are developing that information and providing it to the DOE right now," he said. "The function of the equipment is one issue and their [controllers'] understanding of the equipment could be another issue and that's what we're trying to get to the bottom of."

Without the computers, operators in the utility's control center would not be able to see whether a generator failed or an overloaded transmission line tripped off. Nor would they be able to remotely control switches in key substations.

FirstEnergy lost a generator, three major transmission lines and three smaller lines in the two hours leading up to the blackout.

Steve Dupee, director of Oberlin Municipal Light and Power, said his office called the Akron area center about 3:30 p.m. that Thursday, to ask why Oberlin had extremely low voltage. The municipal system is connected to FirstEnergy's grid and the city was buying most of its power that day indirectly from FirstEnergy.

"The guy told us he didn't know what was wrong, because his computer was down," Dupee said.

This was about 40 minutes before the blackout swept across Northeast Ohio at 4:11 p.m. and in minutes spread to Michigan, Ontario and New York.

Wadsworth Service Director William Lyren said he was similarly disappointed when FirstEnergy that afternoon couldn't explain the source of obvious problems.

When the municipal system's electricity monitoring alarm went off about 3 p.m., Lyren said Gene Post, the city's electric superintendent, called FirstEnergy. "They said they were in the dark [didn't know] and they couldn't give us any information," Lyren said. "That's when we expect someone to know what's going on."

Having computers malfunction would "be like landing an airplane at night with no lights," said Don Stalla, superintendent of Hudson's municipal electric system, and a 26-year veteran of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co.

By either the volume of frantic phone calls or FirstEnergy's own system, FirstEnergy apparently realized a major system crash was brewing at least 25 minutes before it occurred, said Bob Bye, superintendent of Cuyahoga Falls' electric system.

His department called FirstEnergy about 3:45 p.m. after low voltage alarms went off. "When my foreman called them," Bye said, "basically he was told, 'There's a problem. Now hang up the phone.' "

In Seville, workers for the community's electric system didn't notice problems ahead of time. Like most of Northeast Ohio, Seville lost power about 4:11 p.m. - but was out only 10 minutes, said Utilities Superintendent Kevin Bittaker.

When he called FirstEnergy, "They said they weren't even aware we were back on."

An alarm system to warn control-room personnel of problems was not functioning that afternoon, FirstEnergy said two days after the blackout.

Controllers, though, could still see their monitors, the company said. And the FirstEnergy control center was backed up by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator. MISO is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit company that monitors the grid in the Midwest.

"I know that our network was working that day," said MISO spokeswoman Mary Lynn Webster last night. "I don't know the specifics about FirstEnergy's. I don't know if FirstEnergy was having trouble."

DiNicola said FirstEnergy is still gathering information for the DOE.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday that it will take "weeks, not days certainly, but hopefully not months" to figure out what caused the blackout.

He said investigators must sift through a staggering amount of data, going as far back as eight hours before the power went out. "We are determined to finish this investigation in a timely manner, but we will not compromise quality for speed," he said. "Getting it right is step one."

Abraham spoke at a news conference in New Jersey with Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, which is compiling a chronology of the blackout.

It's too early to tell what triggered the failures that knocked out power for some 50 million homes in eight U.S. states and Ontario, Abraham said.

He said investigators are having trouble coming up with a precise timeline of the blackout because the event unfolded so fast - within nine seconds.

"During those nine seconds, thousands of events occurred on this vast network," Abraham said. Abraham and Herb Dhaliwal, Canada's natural resources minister, are leading the task force to find the cause of the blackout, to explain why it spread and to recommend steps on keeping it from happening again.

Plain Dealer Reporter Peter Krouse and New Jersey freelance writer Jennifer Potash contributed to this story.

To reach these Plain Dealer

reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

tmurray@plaind.com, 216-9994113

tbreckenridge@plaind.com, 216-999-4695


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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