lectrical problems were percolating around
northern Ohio for at least an hour before failures in transmission
lines there joined a chain of events leading to North America's
biggest blackout, according to new details provided by utilities to
a task force investigating the event.
The information, including second-by-second data on the
conditions of some lines and records of conversations among grid
operators, was presented to American and Canadian government
investigators at a meeting in Newark on Friday, said several people
who attended the session and industry officials who were told what
was discussed there.
Government investigators and industry groups would not comment on
the details of the inquiry.
But all signs point to northern Ohio as the place where troubles
began on Aug. 14. In particular, those signs point to the failure of
two big transmission lines in suburbs south of Cleveland, at 3:06
and 3:32 p.m.
The second of those two lines went out with a bang actually,
two. The line, which like its counterpart, was owned by FirstEnergy Corporation, overheated and sagged
where it bisects the village of Walton Hills, until electricity
arced into nearby trees.
Marlene Anielski, the village mayor, said she was taking
something out of her car at her home a quarter-mile away. She
described "this big boom, a couple seconds," and then another boom.
"I was the second phone call in to the police department."
She said appliances in nearby homes were smoking and a crew from
Nelson Tree Service, an Ohio company that had the FirstEnergy
contract to keep trees from growing toward transmission lines, was
running from house to house urging people to get out. Then at 4:10
p.m., the power went out.
"I figured something bigger must be going on," Ms. Anielski said.
"Then the phone calls starting coming in that New York's power was
out. Detroit was out."
Ms. Anielski said she knew of no problems in the area in recent
years related to the lines or nearby trees.
In the search for possible causes of the blackout, questions have
been raised about everything from tree-trimming efforts to computer
viruses. Early this year, a virus affected a computer system at
FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, but environmental
groups say the computers were not linked to reactor operations.
Many power experts say the most likely cause of the blackout was
a delay in finding ways to compensate for the lost line capacity in
Ohio, followed by the failures of systems or procedures meant to
keep one region's power troubles from becoming everyone's
An update on the status of the government investigation may be
provided as early as today by the Energy Department, which is
directing the analysis in partnership with the Canadian Ministry of
But an Energy Department spokeswoman, Corry Schiermeyer, said
that far more data had to be collected and put in sequence before
any conclusions could be drawn, and that people "should not have any
kind of prejudgment in the meantime."
Still, many industry officials and energy experts have already
identified Ohio and the transmission territory of FirstEnergy as a
prime piece in the blackout puzzle.
On Friday, American Electric Power, another utility company in
Ohio, released a detailed timeline of events on its lines, which
connect from the south with FirstEnergy's system. Officials at
American Electric said their system, detecting growing problems to
the north, automatically severed connecting lines to cut off a drain
On Friday, American Electric officials said they were providing
more information to the international task force, and they briefed
regulatory agencies in states served by the company.
Electrical links between Ohio and Michigan remain another focal
point in the investigation. On these lines, devices called relays
are supposed to cut the power at the first sign of big
But investigators and experts say that some problem perhaps
faulty settings on the relays or a delay in power managers'
decisions allowed Ohio's troubles to streak into Michigan.
That is where the dominoes really started to topple, experts say.
As power plants in Michigan shut down in quick succession, Michigan
started draining power from Ontario, abruptly reversing what had
been an outward flow of electricity toward Canada.
The other vital puzzle piece remains the capacious power lines
connecting Ontario and New York. Those links shut down as New York
was exporting power to Canada. The abrupt shutdown left New York's
lines overloaded, prompting plants in the state to start shutting
Those shutdowns then caused fluctuations in the electricity that
prompted more New York plants to protect themselves by cutting off
from the grid. And by 4:11 p.m., communities from Walton Hills to
New York City found themselves girding for a long night in the
Some industry officials participating in the inquiry said the
data should provide more answers once the timelines kept by
different regions and companies have been synchronized.
Elected officials from Ohio to New York are clamoring for
answers. The New York State Assembly plans to hold a hearing in
Albany on Wednesday, the first of several on why things went wrong
in most of the state.