- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003


The nation’s worst blackout began with three power line failures in Ohio and should have been contained by operators at FirstEnergy Corp., a three-month government investigation concluded yesterday.

The report by a U.S.-Canadian task force said the FirstEnergy operators did not respond properly, thus allowing the Aug. 14 outage to cascade and eventually cut off electricity to 50 million people in eight states and Canada.

The task force also faulted outdated procedures and shortcomings at a regional grid-monitoring center in Indiana that kept officials there from grasping the emerging danger and helping FirstEnergy deal with it.

“This blackout was largely preventable,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.

The task force said it found “no computer viruses or any sort of illicit cyber-activities” to blame. It also concluded there was no deliberate damage or tampering with equipment associated with the outage.

Among the faults found at FirstEnergy, however, was a simple failure to keep trees around power lines trimmed.

FirstEnergy, the nation’s fourth-largest investor-owned utility company, had no immediate response to the report. The company, based in Akron, Ohio, has maintained that its problems were but some of many problems with the Midwest power grid on the day of the blackout and that it should not be singled out.

The task force report cites the failure of a FirstEnergy line near Cleveland, followed by problems with two of its other lines, as the “initial events” of the blackout.

The loss of the three lines caused too much electricity to flow into nearby lines and created an overload. Because those lines were not prepared for the sudden increase in power, the system became unstable as the balance between available power and demand deteriorated, according to the report.

It said the company’s failure to adequately trim trees along the lines “was the common cause” for the lines tripping and said overall FirstEnergy “failed to ensure the security of its transmission system.”

Mr. Abraham and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal released the findings in the 134-page report on the causes for the blackout that spread across eight states, from eastern Michigan to New York City and into Canada.

It was the worst blackout in the nation’s history, costing at least $6 billion in economic and other losses. It prompted new calls for upgrading the nation’s high-voltage electric-transmission systems and giving the government power to enforce reliability standards.

Congress is expected this week to complete a massive energy bill that includes, for the first time, federal reliability rules for companies to follow to safeguard the grid system. Currently the industry regulates itself with no direct penalties for violations.

The report raises questions about the monitoring of the power grid by the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, a group responsible for overseeing power flow across the upper Midwest.

The MISO operators, from a control center in Carmel, Ind., were using outdated information and didn’t have the means to identify significant transmission problems developing in the system, said the report. That prevented MISO operators from assisting FirstEnergy control operators, who themselves were hampered by a faulty computer and other mechanical glitches.

The task force cited both human error and equipment failures, noting that FirstEnergy’s ability to analyze its problems was hampered for nearly 90 minutes by a computer failure.

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