Early signs of trouble missed in Ohio|
At least eight major failures in one-hour
Akron-based company faces tough
Cleveland, OHIOPower officials in Ohio did not spot
the importance of a series of power failures that preceded
last Thursday's massive blackout.
Over a one-hour period Thursday afternoon, there were
at least eight major power failures in the state's nuclear
plants and transmission lines.
Five more lines failed at the same time that Ontario
and other states lost power. Within minutes, an estimated 50
million people in Canada and the U.S. were plunged into
"They did not see that it would be that significant,"
said David Hilt, director of compliance for the North American
Electric Reliability Council, charged with trying to figure
out what went wrong.
The power failures came at lines and substations run by
First Energy, a giant company that supplies power to parts of
Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They affected the Lake Erie
Loop, a massive electrical grid that encircles the lake,
moving power from New York to the Detroit area, then to Canada
and back to New York.
Hilt's electricity watchdog group is taking a
second-by-second look at what happened Thursday afternoon,
leading to the disruption that crippled cities including
Toronto, Cleveland and New York.
Hilt said it is not unusual for one or two lines in a
system to suddenly stop transmitting power. However, with so
many in such a short period, red flags would normally go up.
"That gets to be of concern, obviously, the number of them,"
Three other utilities operating lines in Ohio isolated
their systems as soon as they detected a problem, something
that did not happen at First Energy, according to the chair of
the Ohio Public Utility Commission.
First Energy spokesperson Todd Schneider said yesterday
the Akron, Ohio-based company is trying to find out what
happened last week. With power now restored to all customers,
Schneider said they "are pulling documents and investigating
to see where it occurred and why it occurred."
First Energy chair H. Peter Burg said last night his
company is committed to working with the North American
Electric Reliability Council to find out what went wrong and
to "help in efforts to ensure this does not happen again."
Here's what happened Thursday, according to interviews
and the log report released by the electric reliability
council, a non-profit, industry-sponsored group.
(Representatives on the council's various committees include
First Energy executives.)
Early Thursday afternoon, at 1:30, the First Energy
coal-fired electricity plant at Eastlake, a half-hour drive
east of downtown Cleveland, went offline. A large plume of
soot and ash was released into the air, giving rise to local
speculation the plant was on fire. But First Energy
spokesperson Mark Durbin said the soot and ash was released
because, with no electricity, an emission-control system shut
down and a full dose of smoke was vented into the air.
Despite this still-unexplained malfunction at Eastlake,
followed by three transmission lines going out of service,
First Energy says it was not concerned a massive blackout was
"Indications to First Energy were that the company's
system was stable, and First Energy customers experienced no
service interruptions," the company said in a statement.
That's why, company officials say, First Energy did not
isolate its system from the power grid.
First Energy also revealed last night an "alarm screen"
that should have notified officials of a developing problem
was not operating. Durbin said the alarm was in the operating
control room for First Energy in Akron, but he was not able to
say what help it would have been, since First Energy officials
were well aware the Eastlake plant and power lines had gone
The first indication of what went wrong came at 3:06
p.m. Thursday, just over one hour before the massive blackout
of 4:10 p.m. Breaker switches opened at a giant transmission
line in South Cleveland. The transmission line, like all but
one involved in the one-hour period, was a 345-kilovolt line.
That type of line carries power from one substation to
another. These lines do not carry power directly to
homeowners, but rather move vast quantities of electricity
across a state or between states.
In this case, a 19-kilometre series of towers between
the Chamberlain substation and the Harding substation in
Cleveland shut down. Less than half an hour later, the
breakers also opened at the Hanna and Juniper substations,
also in southern Cleveland. But before they did, the line
sagged, an indication, utility experts say, that too much
power was passing through. The line got hot and literally
A few minutes later, at 3:41 p.m., another major line
"tripped" or shut off. Then, at 3:46 p.m., a Cleveland-area
transmission line that is connected to a First Energy coal
plant 250 kilometres away shut down. The plant, called Tidd,
is in a town called Brilliant in the southeast portion of
Twenty minutes later, at 4:06 p.m., another
Cleveland-based transmission line failed, this one connected
to the Sammis coal-fired plant near First Energy's
headquarters in Akron. Unlike the other lines, the Sammis line
opened (power shut off) and then closed (power on again).
Then, more transmission lines went offline. Three were
at First Energy nuclear plants.
At 4:15 p.m., the Sammis line that had tripped and then
gone back into operation, opened and closed again. Utility
experts say lines are only supposed to open and close once.
Two minutes later, at 4:17 p.m., the problem moved out
of the state to the Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan (not owned
by First Energy). More lines tripped in Michigan, and the
problem eventually spread to Ontario, New York, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania and elsewhere. By 4:30 p.m., the power was out in
much of those states and Ontario.
In Niagara Falls, N.Y., the Robert Moses hydro plant
noticed a sudden dip in the demand for power (a sign of
something wrong on the system) about 4:10 p.m., said plant
spokesperson Joanne Wilmott.
As the investigation into what happened Thursday
progresses, tough questions about equipment, inspections and
reliability are being asked of both First Energy and the Ohio
Public Utilities Commission.
The Ohio Public Utilities Commission, however, said it
does not regulate the large lines (345-kilovolt capacity) that
went out of service. Chair Alan Shriber said they only inspect
and regulate lines under 69 kilovolts. .
However, Hilt, the electric reliability council's
compliance director, said public utilities are supposed to
monitor and inspect all lines.
First Energy bills itself as the fourth largest
investor-owned electric utility in the United States. Company
press releases boast that, in addition to residential and
industrial customers, First Energy's power lights up New
Jersey casinos and the Statue of Liberty, both in areas hit by
the blackout. First Energy serves 4.3 million customers across
three states. It has nearly $12 billion in annual revenues,
company documents say.
The power failure follows several tough blows for the
company. On Thursday morning, Moody's Investors Services said
it was reviewing First Energy's recent poor financial
performance with an eye to possibly downgrading its debt
A week before, a U.S. judge ruled First Energy should
have installed anti-pollution equipment when it repaired one
of its coal-burning electric power plants in Ohio. And the
year before that, First Energy came under fire when it was
discovered a nuclear plant in the northwest corner of the
state was dangerously close to a core