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Eastlake failure led to blackout, Michigan utility executive says

08/21/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

FirstEnergy Corp.'s loss of a generator at its Eastlake power plant began a chain of events that ended in the largest blackout in American history, according to a Michigan utility executive.

FirstEnergy's automated attempts to make up for that loss of power, first from southern Ohio, then Michigan, created the sudden reverse in current that destabilized the grid, tripping off generators and power lines all the way to New York City, according to Joseph Welch, chief executive of International Transmission Co., which delivers power to eastern Michigan.

Welch laid out the scenario to Michigan regulators, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

While individual events preceding the blackout have been known, this is the first time that an official involved in the massive power failure has publicly strung them together in a cause-and-effect relationship.

Spokesmen for FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, both of which had roles in Welch's blackout theory, told The Plain Dealer yesterday that there is not enough information yet to prove or disprove his explanation.

"It looks like he is making some assumptions," said AEP's Patrick Hemlepp. "We don't have data to say that could be it or, no, it's wrong. We just don't know right now."

"It's far too early to speculate," agreed FirstEnergy's Todd Schneider. "Everybody is interested in a quick answer. In this case, it's simply not going to be possible."

The company earlier this week assigned more than 100 engineers to collect and begin scrutinizing recordings from 1,000 sites, including its master control center, power plants, substations and transmission lines.

"We are analyzing our data millisecond by millisecond," Schneider said. AEP is performing a similar review.

FirstEnergy has acknowledged that the largest of the five generators at its coal-fired Eastlake plant automatically shut down about two hours before the blackout began. Welch said FirstEnergy then began importing power from AEP's power stations in southern Ohio, according to the Bloomberg report.

During the next hour, five high-voltage transmission lines serving Northeast Ohio - three operated by FirstEnergy, one by AEP and one jointly run by the two - failed, one after the other. Welch said that cut off FirstEnergy's access to emergency power from the AEP grid and caused FirstEnergy's automated system to pull enormous amounts of power from the Michigan grid.

The sudden draw in less than 10 seconds caused a catastrophic reversal in direction of the current flows on the Lake Erie Loop, Bloomberg quoted Welch as saying. The loop is a giant ring of transmission lines that circles the lake and links Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto. The resulting instability knocked out power plants throughout the region and collapsed the grid as far away as New York City.

Neither Hemlepp nor Schneider could confirm that FirstEnergy was importing emergency power after the Eastlake generator shut down.

"That's part of our investigation," Schneider said. "Obviously, we've got to give the information to the U.S.-Canadian task force before we give it to the media."

Both spokesmen noted that rumors about the blackout's cause have abounded since minutes after the lights went out.

"Name the day, and I'll give you the scenario," Hemlepp said. And Welch isn't a neutral observer.

"He's a transmission company executive with people asking him how come his company didn't disconnect," Hemlepp said. "He's got a dog in this fight."

Although Schneider declined to reveal the details of FirstEnergy's investigation so far, he did clarify the condition of the alarms that are supposed to notify company engineers when transmission lines have failed.

Initially the company said that visual alerts on the operators' computer screens weren't working. Yesterday, Schneider said further review showed that the screen alerts were functioning but that the system's audible alarms were not. He said engineers did not know how long those alarms had not been working.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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