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FirstEnergy details pre-outage events

09/05/03

Teresa Dixon Murray and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

For the first time, FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday publicly released a chronology of problems that erupted before last month's blackout.

The company submitted the 13-page analysis - including three maps showing voltage flows at different times during the four hours leading up to the blackout - to the House Energy and Commerce Committee as part of the testimony given by FirstEnergy Chief Executive H. Peter Burg.

A total of 46 regional "events" occurred before the lights winked out, the analysis indicates. And 11 of these - including plant outages and line disruptions on other companies' equipment - occurred before FirstEnergy's first big line, the Chamberlin-Harding line running through Cuyahoga and Summit counties, tripped off at 3:06 p.m., FirstEnergy said.

Federal and industry officials have used a working hypothesis that the cascading failures of high-voltage transmission lines and automatic power plant shutdowns began in FirstEnergy's territory and then spread to seven other states and Ontario.

At the beginning of nearly everyone's timeline was the shutdown of a generator at FirstEnergy's Eastlake power plant about 1:30 p.m. Numerous FirstEnergy lines tripped off after that.

Since the Aug. 14 blackout, FirstEnergy officials had repeatedly said there were voltage and frequency "anomalies" and equipment problems elsewhere on the region's electric grid, but they had refused to be specific until yesterday.

FirstEnergy's defense argues that instead of pulling in power from all over the region, thus setting up disruptions, it was somewhat of an innocent bystander - with power being pulled through its territory.

Ray Dotter, a spokesman for PJM Interconnection, the consortium that coordinates electricity transmission in parts of Ohio and the East, said: "I can't comment on it because I haven't seen it and we are relying on the facts, the official timeline that will come out in the joint U.S.-Canadian investigation."

Hoff Stauffer of Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Massachusetts, who two weeks ago developed a well-received theory on the blackout's cause, said a quick review last night of FirstEnergy's case "seems to support what we've been thinking" - that the problem began in FirstEnergy territory.

Cambridge last month didn't have any information from FirstEnergy to develop its theory, which it presented to federal authorities. Cambridge has pointed to the failure of a FirstEnergy transmission line after it hit a tree in Walton Hills as a key event in the blackout, saying that put a terrible strain on other lines in the state.

However, Stauffer said yesterday that some of FirstEnergy's conclusions were "confusing" and that key details of the final minute before the blackout were missing.

He challenged FirstEnergy's contention that power was flowing from FirstEnergy to Michigan in the last second.

He pointed out that this power flow to the north probably occurred because Michigan's system failed.

That happened after electricity was rerouted west and north around FirstEnergy territory when American Electric Power disconnected itself from FirstEnergy's southern border.

But Stauffer added, "I think it is terrific that this data was presented so that everybody can look at it and try to see what it means."

In its chronology released yesterday, FirstEnergy said it had planned in advance to import power for the hottest day in five weeks and said power demand was not projected to exceed the amount on hand.

In pointing to other potential contributors to the blackout, FirstEnergy mostly mentioned Columbus-based AEP, beginning with the loss of a small AEP power plant just past noon and the failure of transmission voltage equipment at 12:51 p.m. on a major transmission line near the western Michigan-Indiana border.

That was followed by a disruption about 1 p.m. at a power plant owned jointly by AEP, Cincinnati-based Cinergy and Dayton Power & Light, according to the chronology, and the flow reversed near the Pennsylvania-New York border, going back north.

But AEP, FirstEnergy's neighbor to the south whose name came up most often in the report, said FirstEnergy's perspective was puzzling because it cited everyday events.

Craig Baker, senior vice president of regulation and public policy at AEP, said, "Clearly they've laid out a timeline of events that happened around the grid . . . I don't see the relationship in any way to the blackout."

As for AEP's cutting itself off from FirstEnergy as designed after problems were detected, Baker said, "We don't know why other people's systems didn't work the way that ours did."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

tmurray@plaind.com, jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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