ASHINGTON, 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
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
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
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
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."