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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Power failure began in Ohio

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FirstEnergy Corp. said last night that it had electrical transmission lines in the Cleveland area failing on the verge of the nation's worst power blackout, and admitted that an alarm system that would have alerted the utility to greater problems was not working.

The alarm system could have helped identify voltage irregularities and other problems on its transmission system.

“Yes, we were aware it was out,” Ralph DiNicola, the utility's public relations director, said. He refused to say how long or why it was out. “I'm not going to play that game. That's part of the investigation,” he said.

However, a computerized system for monitoring and controlling FirstEnergy's transmission and generation system was working.

The head of a nonprofit group that industry has put in charge of overseeing the electric transmission system said yesterday that northern Ohio appears to have been the epicenter of the blackout.

“We are now fairly certain this disturbance started in Ohio,” said Michehl R. Gent, the president and chief executive officer of the North American Electric Reliability council.

“We are now trying to determine why this situation was not brought under control after the first three transmission lines relayed out of service. We will get to the bottom of this,” he said.

FirstEnergy, the parent company of Toledo Edison, said it did not experience a service interruption or notice anything amiss that could have tipped it off in time to isolate the problem.

“Based on what we know, isolation of our system wasn't called for,” Kristen Baird, another spokesman for the utility, said.

FirstEnergy officials said the company was in no way admitting responsibility for the outage, which knocked out service for 50 million people in eight states and parts of Canada.

It cited Midwest Independent System Operator records that show a number of other transmission line trips beyond FirstEnergy's system had occurred at about the same time throughout the region.

Officials from the Midwest ISO, who oversee the regional transmission grid, have stated that transmission lines were tripping nearly simultaneously in Ohio, New York, and Ontario.

“There were lines that were going out at other places, too. At the time, you don't know what the right answer is,” Jim Torgerson, Midwest ISO president and chief executive officer, told The Blade yesterday. “Had FirstEnergy disconnected, it might have caused the same problem that occurred in the end.”

The Midwest ISO's monitoring system apparently was working. “We manually intervene all the time,” Mr. Torgerson said.

With records of events leading up to the outage becoming widely circulated in the media yesterday, FirstEnergy executives huddled privately to determine the utility's next moves. Lunches were taken in to the company's headquarters in Akron. Entry to the building was strictly controlled.

“These are very complex issues that will take time to analyze and work through,” according to a prepared statement from H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy chairman and chief executive officer.

“We are committed to working with the North American Electric Reliability Council and everyone else involved in the effort to determine exactly what events in the entire affected region led to the outage and to help in efforts to ensure this does not happen again,” the statement said.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), a harsh critic of FirstEnergy, said that the nation's fourth largest investor-owned electric utility could face “grave consequences” if it ends up being implicated for the nation's worst power outage.

“If the same company that tried to cover up serious defects at a nuclear reactor is also responsible for precipitating a blackout that denied service to 50 million people, I think that's a problem,” Mr. Kucinich said.

Repairing the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, which has been off-line since February, 2002, has cost FirstEnergy at least $470 million. The company is facing allegations of mismanagement that led to the problems at the plant near Oak Harbor, Ohio.

A task force of U.S. and Canadian officials was being formed to do more investigation. It is to include U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal.

Congressional hearings are planned for September.

While the actual blackout occurred at 4:11 p.m. Thursday, here are some key problems that occurred earlier that day:

  • 2 p.m. - FirstEnergy's Eastlake Unit 5, a 680-megawatt coal generation plant in Eastlake, Ohio, trips off. On a hot summer afternoon, “that wasn't a unique event in and of itself,” said Mr. DiNicola. “We had some transmission lines out of service and the Eastlake system tripped out of service, but we didn't have any outages related to those events.”

  • 3:06 p.m. - FirstEnergy's Chamberlain-Harding power transmission line, a 345-kilovolt power line in northeastern Ohio, trips. The company hasn't reported a cause, but the outage put extra strain on FirstEnergy's Hanna-Juniper line, the next to go dark.

  • 3:32 p.m. - Extra power coursing through FirstEnergy's Hanna-Juniper 345-kilovolt line heats the wires, causing them to sag into a tree and trip.

  • 3:41 p.m. - An overload on First Energy's Star-South Canton 345-kilovolt line trips a breaker at the Star switching station, where FirstEnergy's grid interconnects with a neighboring grid owned by the American Electric Power Co. AEP's Star station also is in northeastern Ohio.

  • 3:46 p.m. - AEP's 345-kilovolt Tidd-Canton Control transmission line also trips where it interconnects with FirstEnergy's grid, at AEP's connection station in Canton.

  • 4:06 p.m. - FirstEnergy's Sammis-Star 345-kilovolt line, also in northeast Ohio, trips, then reconnects.

  • 4:08 p.m. - Utilities in Canada and the eastern United States see wild power swings. “It was a hopscotch event, not a big cascading domino effect,” said Sean O'Leary, chief executive of Genscape, a company that monitors electric transmissions.

  • 4:09 p.m. - The already lowered voltage coursing to customers of Cleveland Public Power, inside the city of Cleveland, plummets to zero. “It was like taking a light switch and turning it off,” said Jim Majer, commissioner of Cleveland Public Power. “It was like a heart attack. It went straight down from 300 megawatts to zero.”

  • 4:10 to 4:25 p.m. - Power plants and high-voltage electric transmission lines in Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Ontario shut down.

    More than 100 power plants, including 22 nuclear reactors in the United States and Canada, were shut down to protect them from damage that could have come from power surges. Most of the shutdowns occurred by safety systems that were automatically deployed.

    Industry officials are trying to understand why the failure of the lines in the Cleveland area caused the service disruption to spread throughout much of the Northeast, the Midwest, and Ontario. The transmission system was supposed to isolate problems, Mr. Gent said.

    “The system has been designed and rules have been created to prevent this escalation and cascading,” Mr. Gent said.

    Mr. Kucinich, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said: “I think this is a time to be very cautious about drawing conclusions, because the implications of this are so severe.”

    “But there's nothing anyone can say that will speak more lively than FirstEnergy's inability to protect the public's safety and convenience. So again, I want to be cautious about drawing any conclusions where this takes them.”

    Mr. Kucinich petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 3 to revoke the utility's operating license at Davis-Besse, alleging the company repeatedly has lied or distorted facts about the extent of damage at the troubled nuclear plant.

    Although the NRC has cited FirstEnergy for several violations of inaccurate or incomplete information throughout the ordeal, it denied Mr. Kucinich's petition. In July, the congressman appealed that decision and renewed his request.

    Blade staff writer Jon Chavez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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