Union Tribune

September 4, 2003

Power failure probed

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON —— A congressional committee investigating last month’s power failure listened to Ohio officials’ concerns Wednesday, but it still hasn’t learned the cause after its first hearing into the blackout.

But the House Energy and Commerce Committee discovered there is a startling lack of accountability for the electrical transmission grid, which was implicated as the source of the outage that paralyzed New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and other cities throughout the Midwest, Northeast and southeastern Canada.

Gov. Bob Taft and utility experts who testified before the committee, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, were unable to say what caused the Aug. 14 outage or why it spread so far beyond its apparent beginning in northern Ohio.

“We don’t know yet what happened on Aug. 14th,” said Abraham, who added that he hopes to complete the probe within weeks rather than months.

As an illustration of the complexity of the enterprise, he said investigators are analyzing 10,000 individual electrical “incidents” that happened across thousands of square miles within nine seconds.

As the committee asked questions, it became clear that the transmission grid has largely escaped government or industry regulation.

In Ohio, for example, the state regulates the distribution of electricity to residential and business customers.

But neither the state nor the federal government is responsible for ensuring the reliability of the transmission of electricity along high voltage power lines.

“Someone has to be in charge, someone has to be responsible,” Taft told the committee.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm agreed.

“The bottom line is that this (is a system) where no one, myself included, knows who is ultimately responsible for ensuring reliability,” she said.

Taft, a Republican, and Granholm, a Democrat, both urged Congress to make transmission standards, which are currently voluntary, mandatory.

“Responsibility for enforcement of rigorous national standards for the safe and reliable transmission of electricity should be given either to a federal agency or state commissions operating to enforce federal standards,” Taft said.

Alan R. Schriber, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, urged Congress to consider giving states the authority to enforce transmission reliability standards.

Taft also encouraged the committee to back a strong regional system that would give direction and control of the grid to independent regional grid operators.

The reliability of the transmission grid falls under the purview of the North American Electric Reliability Council, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for the transmission network.

But there is no penalty for violating the standards, explained Michehl R. Gent, president and chief executive officer of NERC.

Gent produced a list of hundreds of violations of its transmission standards by utilities, adding that that “virtually half of these (violations) could have resulted in a blackout.”

Several who testified, including Brant H. Eldridge, executive manager of the East Central Area Reliability Council in Canton, Ohio, argued that there are inadequate economic incentives to strengthen and expand the transmission grid.

But when pressed by the chairman of the committee, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., to explain why a 10 percent to 12 percent federally guaranteed return on investment was not enough incentive, they appeared to be at a loss.

“I can’t answer that question,” said Eldridge. The organization he manages, ECAR, is one of 10 regional reliability councils that function as part of NERC. ECAR covers all or portions of nine states, including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Michigan officials criticized utilities in Ohio for failing to notify them of the early stages of the blackout, which they said could have given Michigan time to protect against it.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” said J. Peter Lark, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission. Ohio utilities had more than an hour to notify them of problems that were developing before the outage hit Michigan, he said.

Taft responded by saying that the cause of the outage has yet to be determined and that there has to be a more technologically advanced way of making these notifications beyond a phone call.

Officials from FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron-based utility that some have suggested was the source of the outage, and American Electric Power in Columbus will offer their sides of the story as the hearing continues today.