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Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, left, and Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow fielded questions Wednesday from Representative John D. Dingell, on the monitor, in a House hearing on the 2003 blackout.

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The Blackout of 2003



Blackouts (Electrical)

Energy and Power

Hundreds of Rule Violations Tied to Possible Blackouts


WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 Electric companies violated transmission grid rules hundreds of times last year in ways that could have led to a power failure, the president of the rule-making association testified today in the first hearing on the Aug. 14 blackout.

The president, Michehl R. Gent of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said it was still too early to say whether the blackout was caused by someone breaking the rules, or a deficiency in the rules themselves.

But in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Gent said that his organization had counted 444 violations of operating standards in 2002, about half of which could cause a blackout.

Also today, the committee released 650 pages of transcripts of conversations between a system controller at the utility control room near Akron, Ohio, operated by the FirstEnergy Corporation, and a technician at the Midwest Independent System Operator, or Miso, in Carmel, Ind., discussing some early indications of a problem. The transcript, prepared by Miso's lawyers, leaves the impression that FirstEnergy was having severe difficulty monitoring its own system.

At one point, a FirstEnergy controller told a counterpart at Miso: "We have no clue. Our computer is giving us fits too."

At the hearing, the question on the rules and what caused the blackout was raised by the committee's ranking Democrat, John D. Dingell of Michigan, who maintained that Congress should promptly pass a bill reflecting its consensus that the transmission rules should have the force of law.

But Republicans are pressing to keep it as part of a broader energy bill that deals with drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, steps to increase the supply of natural gas and other issues. Senator Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who will lead the negotiations over the broader energy bill, today flatly dismissed the idea. "No dice," said Mr. Domenici as lawmakers prepared for the first negotiating session over energy policy.

On the committee, however, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, complained that some lawmakers were trying to hold that upgrading of the electrical grid hostage to get a broader bill that will include contentious items like oil exploration in the wildlife refuge.

"It is ridiculous to use the blackout as an argument for drilling in the Arctic refuge," Mr. Markey said.

The committee plans to continue its hearings on Thursday. Coincidentally, the House-Senate conference committee that hopes to reconcile differences between the bills passed by the two houses intends to meet on the same day, for the first time, in an effort to come to an agreement by Oct. 1.

The argument over how to handle electricity policy has been going on for years, as several witnesses today unhappily noted. What was new, however, was the study that showed that the existing voluntary rules are frequently violated.

One violation, Mr. Gent said, was overloading the transmission grid in a way that meant a blackout could be caused by a single generating station or single transmission line breaking down suddenly. The system is supposed to be run so that it can withstand the unplanned, sudden loss of its single biggest source of power.

Another was operating an area so that consumption and production were out of balance, resulting in a slowing of the 60-cycle system, beyond certain narrow limits. (The alternating current system is supposed to alternate 60 times a second.)

Once discovered and investigated, he said, most of the violations "were addressed and didn't occur again." But, he added, "then they have a tendency of popping up elsewhere." He and a host of other witnesses, including the governors of Ohio and Michigan, said that Congress needed to pass a law making the existing voluntary standards mandatory.

Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio said that before the electric industry was de-regulated when a single utility would generate power, transmit it and distribute it in a coherent territory transmission was under a state's jurisdiction.

"Now it's under nobody's jurisdiction," he said. "Somebody has to be in charge of transmission."

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