September 5, 2003
Warning may have prevented blackout
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — If Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. had warned Michigan utilities of power shortages developing in Ohio, the nation’s worst blackout would have been less severe, a utility executive told Congress on Thursday.
“Had Michigan been warned of the problems, a number of actions which would have forestalled the blackout were available,” Joseph Welch, chief executive officer of International Transmission Co., said in remarks submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Meanwhile, FirstEnergy acknowledged its computers malfunctioned before the outage struck. The committee on Wednesday released a transcript of discussions by operators at FirstEnergy indicating their computers malfunctioned.
The Aug. 14 blackout cut power to 50 million people in the Midwest, Northeast and southern Canada.
Thursday’s hearing capped two days of inquiry by the House committee, which is probing the cause of the outage and looking for ways to prevent a repeat performance.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the outage and why it spread so wide. The earliest indications of a problem were the failure of several transmission lines in FirstEnergy’s northern Ohio territory.
Welch suggested that FirstEnergy should have notified Michigan authorities of the power shortages developing in Ohio in the hours before the outage.
“This lack of communication left us in a position where there was nothing we could have done to prevent the blackout from affecting our system,” he said.
International Transmission Co., which operates part of the power grid in Michigan, could have prevented the blackout from extending into Michigan if it had been warned, he said.
It’s even possible, he added, that ITC could have reduced the load on the power system in Michigan enough to have “strengthened (FirstEnergy) sufficiently that (FirstEnergy) may have survived” without the blackout.
H. Peter Burg, chairman and chief executive officer of FirstEnergy, acknowledged the utility experienced a loss of power when a generator and several transmission lines went down prior to the blackout. But despite these losses, “our system did appear to be stable until the very end,” he said.
Detailing the computer problems, he said manual alarms indicating threats to the system malfunctioned. Burg said it’s also possible the computers were not “updating themselves as they should have been.”
Under questioning from Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, Welch said International Transmission Co. did not receive notification of the problems in Ohio through a phone call or electronic means.
“We did not receive any information from anyone,” he said.
Burg testified that in the hours before the blackout, FirstEnergy was in touch with American Electric Power, a neighboring utility, and the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (ISO), a reliability coordinator that serves utilities in several states.
“The data from our (emergency management system) was working properly (and) it went directly to the Midwest ISO,” Burg said. He added that the Midwest ISO “indicated our system was stable.”
In written testimony to the committee, James P. Torgerson, president and chief executive officer of the Midwest ISO, appeared to agree with Burg’s characterization. In the hour before the blackout, the power shortages in Ohio “did not seem to implicate a regional problem,” Torgerson said.
But Torgerson also indicated a need for improved sharing of information.
“I think all the regional entities involved have an appreciation today that communication between reliability coordinators and other entities has to be raised to a higher level than has been required or practiced in the past,” he said.