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Report on Blackout Is Said to Describe Failure to React

By MATTHEW L. WALD

Published: November 12, 2003

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 A report on the Aug. 14 blackout identifies specific lapses by various parties, including FirstEnergy's failure to react properly to the loss of a transmission line, people who have seen drafts of it say.

A working group of experts from eight states and Canada will meet in private on Wednesday to evaluate the report, people involved in the investigation said Tuesday. The report, which the Energy Department plans to release on Nov. 18, is expected to lay out the root causes of the event, with a separate report proposing solutions to come later.

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The report, drafted by an aide at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will probably leave for later the question of why the blackout stopped where it did, participants in the investigation said.

Investigators have established a chronology of events that day, collecting data from hundreds of digital fault recorders, electronic devices that track when power lines or generators take themselves out of service.

Participants in the inquiry said that engineers had identified the failure of FirstEnergy operators in Akron, Ohio, to react properly after nearby transmission lines failed, causing a short circuit that made the line disconnect itself from the grid.

It was not the loss of the initial lines that caused the lights to go out from Detroit to New York City, because lines frequently fail without interrupting service, experts say. Instead, the report is said to indicate that it was the failure of the operators to perform a crucial step called a contingency analysis and then, if necessary, reconfigure the system.

"There's no evidence that was even part of their thought process," one investigator said. But investigators and FirstEnergy itself say the utility was hampered by a malfunctioning computer that did not alert the utility to power line failures. Transcripts released by a House committee in September indicate that FirstEnergy system controllers were unaware of what was happening.

Contingency analyses are performed because the failure of a line or power plant changes the flows across the power system, putting other lines at risk and creating new vulnerabilities, experts say. Sometimes the analysis will identify a single line or generating station that, if it failed, would cause a cascading blackout. To eliminate the possibility of additional failures causing a blackout, operators change the power flows by starting some generators and reducing power to others.

Last month, the investigation moved from a group of up to 90 engineers, meeting in Princeton, N.J., at the headquarters of the North American Electric Reliability Council, to the staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that has been seeking to deregulate the electric system.

Separate groups have been convened to study security issues as well as the role and performance of nuclear plants in the blackout.

Congress is considering an energy bill that could make various changes in the way the grid is managed. The House could take up the bill before the report is released.

"There's probably going to be some balancing of competing interests at play in the final report," said a Congressional staff member with long experience in electric regulation issues. He and others said that the energy regulatory commission was a strong proponent of taking the electric transmission system out of the hands of the utilities that built it and putting it under the control of regional transmission organizations that would operate it like highways, available for all generators and customers to use. But other participants in the electric system, including utilities in the South and some state regulators, do not favor that approach.

"They're not going to want the F.E.R.C. to come out with a strong argument for standard market design," said the aide, referring to the commission's term for the deregulation system it favors.

The commission has also played a role in the establishment of control areas in the Northeast and Midwest, a patchwork pattern that experts say may have laid the groundwork for the technical failures on Aug. 14.

The electric reliability council, a Canadian-American group that sets voluntary standards for the electricity industry, has an objective of its own: it would like to become the enforcement authority for transmission rules.

A spokesman for FirstEnergy, Ralph J. DiNicola, said last week that his company did not know what was in the report, but that any analysis should take into account large unplanned south-to-north power movements that were part of a phenomenon known as loop flows, which occur when power takes a route from producer to buyer different from the intended path.


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