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Published: 11/23/2003

Finger points to FirstEnergy

Now that a harshly worded joint U.S.-Canadian task force has pointed to operational failures by FirstEnergy Corp., the utility company should not waste its time trying to alibi, but rather should take corrective steps at once to prevent a recurrence of the blackout that left much of the northeastern United States and Canada without power last August.

The Akron-based company was singled out on grounds that it allowed some regional outages to get out of hand and experienced computer failures which prevented the activation of monitoring devices. Its employees were not able to discern what was happening and failed to give warnings of problems. And the company failed to trim trees close to transmission trunk lines, which contributed to the blackout.

That is not to say that FirstEnergy singlehandedly put 50 million people in the dark. The interim report also cited the failure of the Indiana-based coordinating group, Midwest Independent System Operator, to detect the problems as they worsened and to try to do something to prevent it. Obviously, a “voluntary” scheme of power sharing is not adequate to the times or the demands placed on the nation's electric grid at times of maximum usage.

Ohio's strategic location in the middle of an extensive grid system makes the state a key player in keeping the grid in operation. FirstEnergy must move swiftly to correct a corporate mindset that tolerates less than first-rate operation, a point also underscored by the near-disaster at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo. That plant has remained closed as company officials and federal regulators attempt to come to grips with the problems revealed in that incident. If a management shakeup is needed to do this, so be it.

The electric-transmission system in this country has for too long been starved for investment funds and is too dependent on a laissez-faire notion that business can do no wrong. Congress, too, must share responsibility; a boondoggle energy bill which will be voted on shortly is supposed to establish some stronger federal rules, but puts off the task of reorganizing the fragmented system of grid control centers, especially in the Midwest.

Issues raised by FirstEnergy should continue to be explored also, including the company's contention that the transmission system is being used by distant producers to ship energy across many traditional utility territories. Another company contention is that independent producers are shipping huge amounts of power to the Canadian province of Ontario at times. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the task force's interim report strongly suggests that our electricity-dependent civilization can no longer depend on a voluntary regulatory system that is tantamount to using a quill pen in an age of computers.

The report, as well as various trade journal articles on this complex subject, makes it evident that the special-interest energy bill in Congress should be pulled back until proper steps are taken to assure reform of the structure of the electrical-transmission system.



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