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Blackouts (Electrical)

Utilities Send Some Remarks on Blackout to Congress


WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 Five electricity organizations involved in the Aug. 14 blackout have sent letters to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee seeking to implicate one another, to varying degrees, in the cascading failure.

On the eve of the first hearing on the blackout, one executive complained about a "communications mishmash," and others said the structure of the industry was inadequate to provide the reliability that the public sought.

All wrote to the committee chairman, Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana. All cautioned that no conclusion could be drawn until engineers had established the sequence of events that day, but many writers apparently found that it was not too soon to make biting observations.

"Detroit Edison's system operators were neither advised of, nor able to detect the beginning of unusual events on the electrical system until approximately 4:06 p.m. local time," said Anthony F. Earley Jr., chairman and chief executive of DTE Energy, the parent of the utility. "The apparent breakdown in communications between the Ohio utilities and other utility systems on Aug. 14 is an issue that must be addressed."

Another utility, International Transmission of Ann Arbor, Mich., complained that "with absolutely no warning, the I.T.C. transmission grid was slammed with a tsunami of loop flow, which collapsed our grid and the grids of our neighbors."

Loop flow is when current sold by one company and bought by another takes an indirect route and flows over the lines of a third company.

The president and chief executive of I.T.C., Joseph L. Welch, said, "Had Michigan been warned of the problems, a number of actions, which would have forestalled the blackout, were available."

Mr. Welch said those actions would have helped save FirstEnergy of Akron, Ohio, the utility he said was the source of the blackout. Mr. Welch, who referred to the mishmash, asked that the Energy Department listen to control-room tapes to confirm that FirstEnergy had sent no warning.

The chairman and chief executive of FirstEnergy, H. Peter Burg, wrote: "Trying to pinpoint a single event is the wrong focus and will not ultimately lead us to the right solutions. It is the cumulative effect of all relevant events and not that last single straw that must be identified and understood."

His letter did not specify the relevant events. But like the other writers, he said he awaited the analysis by the Energy Department and a voluntary group, the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.

The committee begins two days of hearings on Wednesday. A spokesman for the panel, Ken Johnson, said, "The grid is designed to handle multiple disturbances without going down, but clearly it went down this time."

The committee released the letters this afternoon.

An early witness will be Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan. In her prepared testimony, Ms. Granholm calls for Congress to separate the problems of electricity grids from the other problems, as well as to pass a separate law on grids. The problem has been on the agenda for Congress for years, but always in an enormous energy bill encumbered with contentious issues like drilling in Alaska or making cars more efficient. Supporters of some controversial provisions have sought to keep the bill together, in the hope that the popular provisions would help carry the controversial ones.

Representative John D. Dingell of Michigan, senior Democrat on the committee, reiterated his call for a separate proposal. But Mr. Johnson, the panel spokesman, said that was "a standard Democratic line" and that Mr. Dingell offered a substitute proposal to strip rules.

"When the lights go out at home, the light on a good idea comes on," Mr. Johnson said.

An executive at the PJM Interconnection in Norristown, Pa., the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland association that arrested the cascade in North Jersey and western Pennsylvania, identified what a rule might be. Its vice president for governmental policy and communications, Craig Glazer, wrote that regional transmission organizations like his needed accords with neighbors for each to make minute-to-minute changes in their territories to ease neighboring grid congestion.

"It has," Mr. Glazer wrote, "become increasingly clear that the traditional system of multiple control areas with voluntary coordination agreements and planning undertaken by each utility individually simply cannot sustain us in the future."

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