Canton Repository

Thursday, November 20, 2003

FirstEnergy given blame for blackout

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — A U.S.-Canadian task force report on the massive Aug. 14 blackout largely blames Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. for the nation’s worst power outage, which affected 50 million customers from Michigan to Massachusetts to Ontario.

FirstEnergy provides electric power in Massillon, Alliance, Canal Fulton and Hartville, as well as Stark County’s most western and northern townships, including Jackson, Perry and Lake.

After the release of the interim report Tuesday, FirstEnergy continued to deny that it was substantially responsible for the cascading outage, which Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said was “largely preventable.”

“We remain convinced that the outage cannot be explained by events on any one utility system,” FirstEnergy President and Chief Operating Officer Anthony J. Alexander said.

The task force has blamed FirstEnergy for triggering the blackout, which began in northern Ohio as an overload of power caused transmission lines and electrical systems to shut down.

The 124-page report said “computer failures leading to the loss of situational awareness in (FirstEnergy’s) control room and the loss of key ... transmission lines due to contacts with trees were the most important causes” of the outage.

In remarks Tuesday, Abraham said the blackout began “when three high voltage transmission lines operated by FirstEnergy Corp. short-circuited and went out of service when they came into contact with trees that were too close to the lines.”

All three of those lines were in northern Ohio. One was the 34-mile long Star-South Canton line, which connects American Electric Power’s South Canton station to First Energy’s Star Station near Wadsworth.

“After the Star-South Canton line was lost, flows increased greatly on the ... system toward Cleveland and area voltage levels began to degrade,” the report said.

The report said FirstEnergy failed to manage tree growth in its rights of way, causing the shorting of the three transmission lines. Tree to line contacts are not unusual in late summer, when power lines experiencing heavy flow begin to sag, touching trees that have grown taller since winter, the task force said.

In the meantime, FirstEnergy’s alarm warning system malfunctioned, and as a result, “the control room operators took no action, such as shedding load, which could have kept the problem from growing, and becoming too large to control,” Abraham said.

Because FirstEnergy operators were unaware their monitoring equipment had failed, Abraham said “they did not inform neighboring utilities and reliability coordinators, who also could have helped address the problem.”

The task force also found fault with Midwest Independent System Operator, a Carmel, Ind.-based reliability coordinator.

Abraham said MISO’s “system analysis tools weren’t performing effectively ... . This prevented MISO from becoming aware of FirstEnergy’s problems earlier and taking action,” he said.

In what it termed “initial findings” subject to review, the task force found FirstEnergy in violation of four reliability standards and MISO in violation of two.

FirstEnergy failed to notify other utilities of an impending system emergency, accounting for one of the violations, the report said. Another violation by FirstEnergy involved providing inadequate training to operators “for maintaining reliable operation.”

In a statement, MISO did not directly respond to any of the report’s findings. The organization said it recognized the value of communications during critical times and “to that end we are implementing improved communications equipment to better coordinate with other entities responsible for overseeing reliability of wholesale electric power grids.”

In its response, FirstEnergy’s Alexander acknowledged that “our computer system experienced problems that day, which we discussed publicly immediately following the outage.”

Alexander, however, accused the task force of ignoring “high power flows to Canada, system frequency variations” and other events that he said contributed to the outage.

“Our transmission system was designed and built to provide reliable service to our customers, not to be a superhighway for long distance transactions to Canada and elsewhere,” he said.

Alexander said when the blackout occurred, “the margins built into our system for serving our customers were being drained by those transactions.”

The task force, however, said it was a fairly normal summer day for utilities despite a “heavy” flow of power through the region from the south and west to the north and east.

“While heavy, these transfers were not beyond previous levels or in directions not seen before,” the task force said.

The report added that none of the conditions that existed prior to the blackout, including high power flows to Canada and the unavailability of individual generators or transmission lines, was responsible for the outage.

The task force did not find any evidence that damage to equipment, tampering or a cyber attack contributed to the outage.

The report said nuclear plants that were affected by the outage followed proper procedures to shut down and restart safely.