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FirstEnergy defends its actions in blackout


Sabrina Eaton and Tom Diemer
Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington- FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday told a congressional committee that the company was not at fault in the nation's largest blackout because disturbances throughout the power grid preceded the multistate failure on Aug. 14.

Defending his company at a hearing where skeptical lawmakers tried to tighten the web around the Akron-based utility, FirstEnergy CEO H. Peter Burg gave the House Energy and Commerce Committee a chronology of events that showed difficulties with equipment operated by Columbus-based American Electric Power, Dayton Power & Light, Cinergy and Detroit Edison.

These occurred before any FirstEnergy facilities were disrupted in what became a cascade of electricity transmission system failures.

During a break in the hearing, Burg told The Plain Dealer he was convinced, "in my heart of hearts," that "isolated events in our system did not cause this massive outage."

But Burg also acknowledged the utility was having computer problems and could not give specific answers when asked if or when neighboring utilities were notified of glitches in the northern Ohio system. A 650-page transcript of conversations in the Midwest region's electricity control center supported some of FirstEnergy's contentions. The transcript, released by the congressional committee, showed power lines operated by Cincinnati- based Cinergy began to have difficulties around 11 that morning, several hours before FirstEnergy's troubles began.

"From a voltage standpoint, I'd say we're a trip away from big problems," Cinergy electric transmission control worker Spencer House told the Midwest Independent System Operator in a conversation that occurred at 2:43 p.m. Eastern time.

After the blackout was well under way, however, Midwest ISO's Rob Benbow told a 4:55 p.m. utility operators' conference call that Cinergy's power failures were an "isolated situation," and said FirstEnergy's problems seemed more closely linked with the wider outages.

"The time that the frequency went through the roof was right around when FirstEn ergy reported three [transmis sion] lines out and a voltage collapse situa tion around the Perry nuclear plant," Benbow told the group.

Although other utility operators have faulted FirstEnergy for failing to warn others of its problems, transcripts show the utility registered its difficulties in phone calls with Midwest ISO. But FirstEnergy's ability to assess the problem was hampered by computer problems.

"Our computer is giving us fits," FirstEnergy's Jerry Snickey told Midwest ISO, according to the transcripts. "We don't even know the status of some of the stuff around us."

House committee members pressed Burg and other utility industry witnesses to give a reason for the downed transmission lines, offline power plants, malfunctioning computers and failure to tell others of problems during the blackout last month.

"FirstEnergy should not have a license to drive a car, much less operate a nuclear power plant and an electricity generation, transmission and distribution system," said Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, scolding Burg from across a committee table. "All of the evidence seems to be focusing on FirstEnergy as the culprit in this blackout and you appear to be trying to shift the blame elsewhere."

Noting the troubled Davis- Besse nuclear plant, where a hole was discovered in the reactor lid, and the recent loss of a federal clean-air lawsuit, Markey said FirstEnergy had demonstrated a "pattern of cutting corners and neglect."

Markey's remarks were harsh enough that Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, cautioned, "As of yet, we're not here thinking there is any criminal activity."

Burg said it was "understandable that everyone is looking for the straw that broke the camel's back. But there is no one straw - they're all heaped together. And the camel's ability to support the load cannot be overlooked."

There is plenty of blame to go around, said Joseph Welch, president of Michigan-based International Transmission Co. He said his system collapsed when American Electric Power and the PJM Interconnection, which coordinates that company's electricity transmissions, disconnected from FirstEnergy's lines. Without other routes of escape, excess power rushed into Michigan, forcing a surge that put lights out in the eastern half of the state.

Welch said he could "find no record anywhere" that the midafternoon failures were accounted for, or that FirstEnergy or American Electric Power had notified his transmission company by phone or electronic message of the looming trouble.

The apparent breakdown in communications, Welch said, "illustrates the No. 1 cause of the blackout, in my opinion."

American Electric Power President Linn Draper said the Columbus utility noticed problems with transmission lines in northern Ohio in early afternoon but did not believe them to be out of the ordinary. But as the power flows exceeded safe operating levels, Draper said his company automatically separated from FirstEnergy's lines - "exactly the way the system is designed."

Utilities and transmission companies move electricity across a grid of high-voltage wires and connections in part by tracking the activity elsewhere in the system so they can avoid overloads or other problems. Many do this with the help of regional transmission organizations such as Midwest ISO or the PJM Interconnection.

Texas Rep. Barton said he believes a "partial cause" of the blackout is Midwest ISO's lack of authority over the utilities whose electrical transmissions it guides - including FirstEnergy - compared with counterparts that serve utilities in other parts of the country. For instance, Midwest ISO didn't learn that FirstEnergy's Eastlake plant had gone offline until 40 minutes after it happened, its president and CEO James P. Torgerson told the committee.

On the other hand, PJM Interconnection, which serves utilities farther east, would have immediately learned of a failure in its region because automatic sensors canvass its entire system every 30 seconds, said its president and CEO Phillip G. Harris. But Midwest ISO lacks such a sophisticated system.

The committee held two days' worth of hearings to decide whether legislative remedies might help prevent other blackouts. Democrats favor a limited bill that would change how the power grid operates, while Republicans want to fold such measures into a more comprehensive energy bill. The Department of Energy is continuing a joint U.S.- Canadian investigation into the blackout's cause.

Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who chairs a governmental affairs subcommittee, has scheduled a Senate hearing next Wednesday on ways to improve the power grid.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4212, 216-999-4212

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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