Calls Show Pre-Blackout Utility Confusion
Sep 3, 2003
WASHINGTON - During the hour before the Aug. 14 blackout, engineers
in the control center of an Ohio utility struggled to figure out why
transmission lines were failing and complained that a computer failure
was making it difficult to determine what was going on, transcripts
of telephone communications released Wednesday show.
At one point, an engineer at the Midwest grid managing organization asked engineers at the Ohio utility, FirstEnergy Corp., to explain why they had not responded to a line outage reported sometime earlier and asked that they find out what was going on.
"The events of the day ... involved thousands of separate and discrete incidents across a widespread multisystem region," Burg wrote.
House committee spokesman Ken Johnson said that while the transcripts showed confusion among FirstEnergy's grid operators, "the confusion ... was not isolated to FirstEnergy. Clearly other companies were also experiencing" problems understanding what was occurring in the power system that afternoon.
Earlier, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (news - web sites) told the House panel that it was too early to make conclusions about what precisely caused the blackout.
"We won't jump to conclusions. Our investigation will be thorough and objective," he said. Abraham said he and his Canadian counterpart, Herb Dhaliwal, had agreed "to a narrowly focused investigation to determine precisely what happened ... (and) why the blackout was not contained."
In a second phase of the investigation, Abraham said, the group will make recommendations on "what should be done to prevent the same thing from happening again."
In the meantime, Abraham said lawmakers should move ahead with measures to improve grid reliability, including mandatory federal reliability rules as part of a broader energy bill. Different versions of the legislation already have passed the House and Senate.
Governors from Ohio and Michigan echoed the need for greater federal oversight and control to ensure grid reliability.
"A system that relies on courtesy calls (to warn of power line problems) is clearly outdated," Ohio Gov. Bob Taft told the congressional hearing, the first to examine the blackout.
An estimated 50 million people were affected and the costs in lost wages, productivity and other disruptions has been put into the billions of dollars.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm told the hearing that the economic repercussions as a result of closed factories, businesses and other facilities in her state alone "will reach the $1 billion mark" and "we feel fortunate there was no loss of life."
Some Democrats accused the Bush administration and congressional Republicans of trying to use the blackout to push through a broad energy bill that would include drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and other controversial issues that have stymied progress on energy legislation for years.
"I don't want the blackout to be used to push an (energy) bill that many of us have great difficulty with," said Rep. Eliot Engel (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., whose state bore the brunt of the Aug. 14 power outage. He said he feared the blackout would be used "to rubber-stamp misguided energy policies" under the guise of repairing the power system.
Rep. John Dingell (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., said he was introducing a bill this week to address the grid reliability issue with new federal rules and standards apart from the broader energy debate.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the committee chairman, said he was optimistic a final energy package — including the electricity measures that are needed — can be worked out and rejected the idea of pursuing separate power grid legislation.
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