- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

CLEVELAND (AP) — It might have been the unexplained voltage swings that rippled across the power grid here. Or maybe the tree branch that shorted the high-voltage line south of town. The failures of a coal-fired generator and an automated warning system might have played a part.

More likely, say experts, is that these four otherwise innocuous events — which appear to have started on the northeast Ohio power grid owned by FirstEnergy Corp. — combined to raise a destructive tsunami that smothered the lights across a huge patch of the eastern United States and Canada.

“In order to have a big problem, you have to have three or four bad things happen all at the same time,” said Hoff Stauffer, a power transmission consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

A posse of U.S. and Canadian investigators will ponder the fruits of several separate probes that have mined details from utility computer logs across the region. Officials close to the investigation have said an interim report on last week’s blackout could be released by mid-September. But a final report may be months away.

“It is way too early to engage in speculation about the role any [incident] might have had in the overall problem,” U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told reporters at a news conference in Washington.

Mr. Abraham said he felt there needed to be “one ultimate finding” by a single investigation and that an industry watchdog group — the North American Electric Reliability Council — would work with a U.S.-Canadian task force.

Mr. Abraham and Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal will co-chair the task force to investigate the causes of Thursday’s power outage and to identify ways to prevent a recurrence. Mr. Abraham and Mr. Dhaliwal plan to discuss the investigation for about an hour in Detroit today after stopping in Ohio to brief state and utility officials.

Girding for the summit meeting, utility and regulatory officials are combing their computer logs for records that could point to outages on their grids that may have caused — or been triggered by — the surging blackout.

Grid operators in New York and New England have gathered data to hand over to the binational investigation, as well as federal and state probes also studying the outage.

Mr. Abraham said Department of Energy investigators are already seeking the cause of the outage. And technicians from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be joining the U.S.-Canadian task force. But FERC is not pursuing a separate investigation, FERC Commissioner William Massey said.

Mr. Massey echoed statements made by President Bush and members of Congress since the blackout, saying lawmakers ought to approve mandatory reliability standards and sanctions.

“This blackout should not have occurred. We need mandatory rules for the grid and we need tough penalties for violators,” said Mr. Massey, one of three FERC commissioners.

In Washington yesterday, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, said his panel would hold a two-day hearing on the blackout on Sept. 4-5. Mr. Tauzin said he sent 15 letters to federal, state and local officials, as well as utility officials, asking for information on the blackout’s cause.

Experts say investigators may not find a single event that triggered the cascade of shutdowns. None of the single glitches would be enough to kill a city’s lights on a normal day, and the grid is designed to work around one or two failures, but not more, Mr. Stauffer said.

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