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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Despite fixes, power outage threat lingers

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

A huge power outage such as the one that put 50 million people in the dark nearly a year ago is far less likely to occur today, but no one can say with any certainty that it could not happen again.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to improve the country's electric grids since the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout, but recommended laws and regulations have not been enacted.

Worse, experts on America's electricity system are concerned that the lack of big blackouts could lead to complacency, which might mean needed legislation will never be passed. That could eventually result in another catastrophe.

"Sometime five years from now, eight years from now, people may say to themselves, 'Things have been pretty good here, do we really need to keeping doing all this stuff?' " said David Meyer, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution.

The danger, he explained, is failure to fix a flawed system in which improvements or maintenance are voluntary will lead to additional outages and ultimately more or even higher repair costs.

Work done by the utilities such as FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, such as trimming trees near power lines and adding computer equipment, has not resulted in higher electric rates.

But future costs likely will be passed along, possibly with a price tag of several billion dollars to improve the nation's electric transmission system and the oversight and monitoring of it, experts say.

Further, without laws and regulations in place to mandate electric grid standards, utilities and their regional oversight councils face little punishment if they fail to make upgrades, experts say.

Even if all the recommended changes were done, it wouldn't prevent problems in a grid system that has become so complex, overburdened, and interlocked that trouble in Wisconsin can affect the system in New Jersey, Mr. Meyer said.

Progress has been made, however, since that hot summer day last year when a tree limb touched a high-power line and touched off a series of events that eventually resulted in an outage that began in FirstEnergy territory in Ohio and spread to Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and five other states and Canada within minutes.

The blackout affected some areas for days, shutting down dozens of power plants and resulting in as much as $10 billion in losses to businesses.

A joint U.S.-Canadian task force investigating the outage determined the reliability of the electric grid system was woefully lacking and in need of vast improvement.

"Overall there's been a dramatic improvement and we're in much better shape today then we were," said Gary Rasp, spokesman for the organization that oversees the 111,000 miles of power lines throughout the Midwest, including FirstEnergy's territory.

"We have done a whole slew of things in the last year to increase the reliability of the system."

In the Midwest, utilities and oversight organizations are in the second year of a five-year, $1.8 billion plan to upgrade electric transmission lines in 15 states.

Mr. Rasp's agency, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, based in Carmel, Ind., has spent $13 million in part to install a computer device that "watches" the level of power coursing through the grid, tracking data at 102,000 points.

That information was lacking a year ago, and contributed to the cascading outage. The joint task force said the Midwest transmission organization did not clearly "see" the blackout unfolding and did not have adequate communication with and information from FirstEnergy to detect the seriousness of the early transmission failures that triggered the blackout.

An equally vital addition was a monitoring system with 56 screens that show technicians the power levels and any problems throughout its part of the national grid.

Other oversight organizations have taken similar action, which Mr. Meyer of the Energy Department said should help spot problems before they become crises.

Mr. Rasp said the Midwest transmission organization now has the authority - which it did not have a year ago - to order its member utilities to take corrective actions, such as shutting down a power plant, starting an idled generator, or reducing the flow of electricity on specific transmission lines.

Such actions might be ordered to prevent or correct problems. Such an order last year could have prevented the spread of the outage to so many states and Canada.

However, the Midwest transmission oversight organization has no direct control of the power lines as some counterpart organizations do elsewhere in the country. It can issue orders but not implement them, although failure to comply with its orders could result in a fine or other penalties to the utility.

FirstEnergy, the primary electric provider in the Toledo area and northern Ohio, has spent $10 million on a computer control system, on top of its customary $1.4 billion in capital improvements in its three-state territory to replace and upgrade transmission equipment.

It also has added a computer device that analyzes information from 60,000 spots on its grid to detect problems and project the potential upshot. Its generators are set to more quickly react to help propel power across its transmission lines, something which didn't occur last year and contributed to the outage.

The parent of Toledo Edison also has spent $88 million this year to trim trees and vegetation near its 11,000 miles of transmission lines and other power lines. In its report, the task force investigating the blackout singled out FirstEnergy.

It said neither FirstEnergy nor an industry organization called the East Central Area Reliability Coordination Council understood the weaknesses in FirstEnergy's territory.

The task force said the utility failed to adequately assess its own system problems or to react appropriately when the first power line shut down south of Cleveland on the afternoon of the blackout. Specifically cited was FirstEnergy's failure to keep trees pruned along its transmission corridors and failure of its operators to recognize the potential enormity of the blackout before it occurred.

The utility has improved its alarm system that last year failed to warn control-room operators that the electric grid was collapsing, and it has adopted a policy emphasizing reliability, company spokesman Ellen Raines said.

It now has an engineer whose sole purpose is to monitor the workings of the grid outside the utility's territory and has a committee to make sure operators' training and skills are up to date, she said.

Still, a key recommendation in the 228-page task force report issued in April called for laws requiring reliability standards with penalties for noncompliance.

No such laws or mandatory standards have been passed.

Standards remain voluntary and the task force found that the blackout stemmed at least partly from violations of voluntary guidelines, including by FirstEnergy. "There is no sufficient substitute for the legislation," said Mr. Meyer, the Energy Department official who was a member of the task force.

On a regulatory level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission set reliability standards in April for companies that buy and sell wholesale electricity; it also can bar violators from making transactions.

The North American Electric Reliability Council, which is a New Jersey-based group created and funded by the electric industry to oversees the nation's electric grid, has made its voluntary standards clearer. Still, there are no penalties for noncompliance.

But at least two regional wings of the organization have put teeth into standards. One group that oversees power producers in New England, New York, and part of Canada will try to embarrass violators through public letters of rebuke to the reliability council, the utility's peers, and to regulators.

Another group that oversees utilities west of the Rocky Mountains requires reliability standards in power transaction contracts, and violators are subject to financial penalties.

Plus, the electric reliability council has certified that, among others, FirstEnergy and the Midwest transmission organization have completed recommended improvements.

And most of the 46 recommendations by the U.S.-Canadian task force have been completed, such as pruning trees near power lines and improving how oversight organizations communicate with utilities, said Mr. Meyer.

Another change that may help prevent blackouts and was a direct result of Aug. 14 was the reliability council's decision to conduct 21 surprise readiness audits at electric utilities east of the Rockies, said Mr. Meyer of the Energy Department. FirstEnergy already had passed a more comprehensive audit.

The council also mandated that utility technicians receive five days of emergency training, and all have complied, he said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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