- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — It all may have started with an untrimmed tree.

Then, like a wildly malfunctioning machine, the creaky Eastern power grid took less than an hour to turn a slumping transmission line outside Cleveland into a cascading multistate blackout that snuffed traffic lights, froze elevators and brought subway cars shuddering to a halt.

A preliminary portrait of Aug. 14’s power failure is emerging as industry officials, federal investigators and outside analysts piece together millions of pieces of data.

The picture is blurred by corporate finger-pointing, political jostling and the sheer complexity of tracing power’s lightning-quick movement through thousands of interlinked miles of transmission lines managed by different operators.

Missed opportunities to address power grid disturbances in the hours preceding the blackout may have given the cascading events such momentum that, like an avalanche gathering speed as it rolls downhill, it eventually became impossible to stop.

“Blackouts just happen. Kaboom. In that time it’s done and it’s settled,” said George Loehr, an electrical engineer who serves on the executive committee of the New York State Reliability Council. “And there’s no way someone can put their proverbial finger in a dike and stop it from spreading any further.”

The Department of Energy — which is taking the lead in the joint investigation with Canada — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and an industry group, all have declined to discuss any early conclusions of their research into the blackout.

Pat Wood, chairman of FERC, said he wouldn’t speculate on the cause.

In the end, Mr. Wood said the root problem may be something as mundane as an untrimmed tree. “That’s not a really deep policy debate,” he said, but would be a matter of saying, “Here’s what your job is, guy: Mow the grass, cut the trees.”

In the wake of the blackout, Mr. Wood said he believes the intricate interconnectivity of the nation’s power grid — which makes one region vulnerable to another’s problems — makes it imperative to have a market designed in a way so that communication between utilities and system operators flows more smoothly than it did a week ago.

Communication across a low-tech system of telephone hotlines linking regional operators was inadequate or absent in the blackout, some utilities and politicians say.

The Ontario province’s premier also has complained that U.S. power managers did not notify their Canadian counterparts as required under protocols put in place after a blackout darkened much of the same region in 1965.

Also in the spotlight are government regulators and the group overseeing the Midwest’s transmission grid, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator. In New England and the mid-Atlantic states, grid operators with more direct control were able to cut themselves off from the worst.

Giving regulators and the operator in the Midwest more control might have helped them contain their problems, some experts say.

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