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Investigation of blackout to take weeks

An investigation into the Aug. 14 blackout that paralyzed Ohio, Michigan, and portions of the northeast United States and Canada may take weeks to pinpoint an exact cause, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday.

A joint U.S.-Canadian task force examining circumstances that led to the nation's largest blackout is processing ``a staggering amount of extremely technical data over a huge area,'' the energy secretary said during a joint briefing in Princeton, N.J., with officials from the North American Electric Reliability Council.

Eventually, the task force hopes to answer three key questions: why the blackout happened, why it spread over sections of two countries and affected 50 million customers, and what steps, if any, can be taken to prevent similar outages.

The role of the reliability council is to gather technical data to assemble a timeline of the events that led to the blackout. The nation's biggest power failure occurred in just nine seconds, knocking out electricity across 34,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

A spokesman for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, an Indiana-based organization formed to regulate use of transmission lines in Ohio, Michigan, and much of the Midwest, said Tuesday its data has been turned over to the Department of Energy and the reliability council.

At yesterday's briefing in New Jersey, Michehl Gent, president and chief executive of the reliability council, said his group has 15 to 30 experts analyzing the information from the electric grid the day of the blackout and has nearly finished its timeline.

Neither the energy department nor the council intends to share findings until they are complete. “We are not ready to put in the public eye what happened when and where until we know for sure what happened,'' said Ellen Vancko, a council spokesman.

But Mr. Abraham assured that the investigation would take weeks, not months, to reach conclusions. ``It's going to take some time to compile all this information, get it all synchronized and sequenced, and then determine exactly what happened when - and how it's all interrelated,'' he said.

He declined to speculate on early reports point toward voltage fluctuations on lines operated by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. as a likely cause of the blackout.

Mr. Gent said the events, including abnormalities in the flow of electricity across the region's lines, need to checked and synchronized with the nation's atomic clock in Colorado, an indication of the speed with which the events occurred from Michigan to the East Coast.

Alan Schriber, head of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, and newly appointed member of the joint task force, said yesterday the task force must examine literally ``thousands of pieces of paper.''

A concern, however, is that once the investigation is concluded there may not be any central authority to implement the task force's recommendations. Also on the task force is Mr. Schriber's counterpart in Michigan, J. Peter Lark.

The reliability council does not have the authority to require utilities to address problems, and organizations like the Midwest ISO can only order upgrades to transmission lines if there is a threat they may fail, a council spokesman said.

The U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on the blackout next week.

James Halloran, an energy company analyst who helps manage $24 billion at National City Wealth Management, said the energy secretary will need the task force to have produced some relevant information by then.

“It will have been nearly three weeks from the blackout,” Mr. Halloran said. “He's going to need to show he's making progress.”

Mr. Halloran's Cleveland-based company has 41,000 shares of FirstEnergy.

Bloomberg News Service contributed to this report.

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