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Experts doubt FirstEnergy could have quit grid

08/26/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Had FirstEnergy Corp.'s power coordinators been able to predict that the utility's power line and generator problems would cascade outside of their territory, they still may not have thought about isolating their part of the grid - or even been able to.

The interconnections between utilities were built with the idea of ensuring reliability by shunting power between contiguous systems, said FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola, not as bottlenecks easily plugged.

"You cannot really isolate yourself," he said. "I don't know if it's even possible. The reason for being interconnected is to ensure reliability."

Breaking away from the larger grid is not a normal operating procedure, agreed experts. Instead, utility grid coordinators are trained to isolate the problem and limit the outage to one smaller area. Completely isolating one utility may no longer even be possible, they said.

"The short answer is, No,' " said Fernando Alvarado, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

Alvarado is co-author of a white paper suggesting the disaster would not have happened had the Midwest been under central control as the grid is in the East.

"The grid is all integrated, a very complex thing," he said. "Imagine you are in a gigantic ballroom that has a number of brightly lit chandeliers, all connected by rubber bands and to the ceiling by rubber bands.

"What if somebody cuts a rubber band? It breaks. Nothing happens. Suppose two are cut. Things may not be OK. But if you cut three? Bing, bing, bang, crash. Some chandeliers will crash to the floor."

Disconnecting was hardly an option, said Alvarado. But a centralized control is.

Analyst Hoff Stauffer, senior consultant at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which has presented the theory that the cascading problems started here, said disconnecting is not the normal way of thinking. "I guess a utility can separate, but I'm told by engineers that that's not a good idea," said Stauffer. "You should instead . . . create your own blackout on a managed basis."

And FirstEnergy had another reason to stay plugged into the grid while grappling with its failed line problems in the hours before the blackout.

With the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant still down for repairs, with the loss of half of its Eastlake power plant at 2 p.m. that day, and with all of the new customers that came with the purchase of New Jersey-based GPU Inc., FirstEnergy does not generate enough power to supply more than 4.4 million customers.

"If you are net short in resources [power], you have every incentive, you absolutely want to maintain that [grid] connection," said Shanthi Muthiah, director of wholesale practice for ICF Consulting of Fairfax, Va.

"You have only two options, import more power, or shed load," she said. "Had they severed their connections, a blackout in northern Ohio would have been inevitable. It appears they were trying to maximize their importing capability."

FirstEnergy is not the only utility short on power these days, since many traditional utilities have sold off their power plants with the advent of federal deregulation, Muthiah said. But even so, most would turn to a neighbor first, as FirstEnergy turned to Columbus-based American Electric Power.

The company did not try to isolate itself, said DiNicola, because its control center operators did not see anything extraordinary in the part of the grid they monitor.

"Our system appeared to be stable," he said. "We had some lines down. And we lost some customers. But it did not appear necessary to take any additional intervention. We were serving our customers."

Plain Dealer reporter Peter Krouse contributed to this story

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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