Sun. Aug. 17, 2003. | Updated at 05:27 AM
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Aug. 17, 2003. 01:00 AM
Early signs of trouble missed in Ohio
At least eight major failures in one-hour span

Akron-based company faces tough questions


Cleveland, OHIO—Power 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 darkness.

"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," said Hilt.

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 looming.

"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 down.

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 sagged.

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 Ohio.

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 rating.

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 meltdown.

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