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Eastlake plant may hold answers

08/30/03

Peter Krouse and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

A 585-megawatt unit at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Eastlake power plant apparently tripped off line Aug. 14 because it sensed an unacceptable variance on the surrounding transmission grid.

The cause of the unit's failure may be critical in determining whether a series of events, beginning with the Eastlake outage, could have triggered the largest blackout in U.S. history.

"The same thing that affected the Eastlake plant may have affected other units," FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola said yesterday.

He said other generating units outside FirstEnergy's went down Aug. 14 before and after the Eastlake unit went off line, but he declined to say where.

FirstEnergy will not say what caused the outage, but U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, whose district includes Eastlake, said he was given an explanation during a tour of the plant after the blackout. The plant went down shortly after 1:30 p.m., belching a cloud of light-brown fly ash into the air and onto surrounding streets and cars.

LaTourette said the plant's chief engineer told him the unit tripped from an increase of megaVARs on the system.

MegaVAR stands for mega Volt Amperes Reactive and is a measurement of electric power. Fluctuations suggest stress in the system.

"My understanding was more energy was being sucked out of Eastlake than was being pushed back at them," LaTourette said.

The cause of the energy draw and whether it also destabilized the grid is unknown.

"It could be one of their customers turned on too much equipment," said Frank Merat, associate professor of electrical engineering and chemical science at Case Western Reserve University. He said it's also possible there was a strong pull on the system coming from a neighboring utility.

Merat said losing Eastlake's 585-megawatt unit could have stressed the local transmission system and contributed to a major line from the Harding substation in Cuyahoga County to the Chamberlain substation in Summit County going down about an hour and a half later. A second major transmission line then tripped after sagging onto a tree. Other lines began to fail as a surge in energy moved from American Electric Power territory in the southern half of the state into FirstEnergy's area.

Hoff Stauffer, co-author of the widely published Cambridge Energy Research Associates' hypothesis on how the blackout began and spread, said an increase in megaVARS recorded by the Eastlake plant suggests instability.

"I have heard the FirstEnergy system is prone to instability when Davis-Besse is not operating," he said. The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, near Toledo, has been down for more than 18 months after the discovery of a pineapple-sized corrosion hole in the reactor lid.

DiNicola discounts any theory that suggests FirstEnergy problems in Northeast Ohio caused the cascading blackout that spread through Michigan, Ontario and New York.

LaTourette also said he was told by the Eastlake engineer that the plant called FirstEnergy's transmission sales center on Ghent Road north of Akron to report the unit shutting down, but was told: "We don't even see that you're down."

"I said to him, 'That sounds like a problem,' " LaTourette said, to which the official replied, "Well, we don't know if it is or not, but the same thing should be picked up by MISO."

MISO is the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator outside Indianapolis. It monitors transmission flows throughout the Midwest, including FirstEnergy territory, but does not have the ability to redirect power flows on its own.

A MISO spokeswoman said its control-center staff saw FirstEnergy's lines go down, but she refused to say whether they were aware that a generator at the Eastlake plant had tripped off.

DiNicola said Ghent Road knew at all times that the Eastlake plant was down. The conversation with the plant was to find out why the unit was down and when it might come back up so energy traders could make adjustments.

FirstEnergy is investigating computer problems at its control center just west of Akron. Operators there said their computers were down when municipal system operators called about anomalies on the local grid.

The possibility that an Internet "worm" infected FirstEnergy's transmission control-center computers is remote, said DiNicola, because the computers in the control centers are not based on Microsoft operating systems, which are most commonly the targets of such computer attacks.

"Obviously, we are going to look at all issues involving the system in the control center," he said. "But most of the virus and worms under discussion are based on Windows [manufactured by Microsoft]."

A "worm" infected two computer systems at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in late January.

The bug did not spread throughout FirstEnergy's computer system, said spokesman Richard Wilkins. "It's conceivable that it could have - but it did not. It did not get out of Davis-Besse."

The company filed a report with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the incident.

At least one member of Congress is pressing the agency to investigate whether a worm or virus was at the root of the transmission system problems that preceded the blackout.

Rep. Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and senior member of the Homeland Security and House Energy and Commerce committees, said in a letter to the agency that in light of the Davis-Besse worm problems, the NRC should investigate.

The NRC has not yet responded to Markey, said a spokesman.

The agency is helping the Department of Energy in its investigation into the blackout. A DOE spokesman yesterday declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

pkrouse@plaind.com, 216-999-4834

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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