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Published: Friday, 1/19/2001

Toledo jolted by own electricity scare in '98

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The focus this week is on electricity blackouts in California, but northwest Ohio came within minutes of losing energy in 1998.

The reasons were different, however, and local officials insist that the crisis California is facing isn't likely to be repeated in Toledo Edison's territory.

“The situation [in Northwest Ohio] was definitely rare,” said Richard Wilkins, a spokesman for Toledo Edison's parent company, FirstEnergy.

Toledo Edison's headaches began June 24, 1998, during a national heat wave that kept air conditioners blasting and electric meters spinning. An unusually high number of Midwest electric plants were shut down for maintenance, making it difficult for utility companies to find extra power on the wholesale market.

Then luck wasn't kind to Toledo Edison.

That night a tornado tore past the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Oak Harbor and toppled the plant's transmission lines. FirstEnergy was left without a steady stream of 930 megawatts, enough to supply about 25 percent of Toledo Edison's needs.

“There was very little reserve [of power], and all of a sudden you had a major generator off line,” Mr. Wilkins recalled.

The utility had to dust off its emergency plan for cases when supply can't keep pace with demand. It had to consider something it hadn't done in a century of operations: turn off the juice.

Most power users, such as factories and refineries, had shut down. They had signed agreements with the utility in which they were guaranteed cheaper rates if they promised to shut down in such power emergencies.

Other companies that hadn't signed such pacts voluntarily curtailed their usage. Many stores and office buildings - including Edison's downtown headquarters - had turned off every other light.

And residents had been begged to turn up their thermostats and avoid running the appliances.

With demand nearly outstripping supplies, utility officials authorized an unprecedented step. They planned to shut down about two dozen substations, supplying power to about 20,000 customers, to avoid a region-wide blackout.

Engineers stood ready to cut power gradually at substations that could be controlled from company headquarters.

About a handful of employees were dispatched to older substations that had to be turned off manually. They brought two-way radios and awaited orders.

The shutdown was planned for 11 a.m. It was called off only minutes before the turn of the hour, when utility officials surmised there was enough power to limp through the day.

Customers were told the utility had pondered blackouts, but never were told just how close they came to occurring. Even state Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee), a member then and now of the House utilities committee, had no idea how close the region came.

“None of us were probably aware of how serious it was when it was going on,” Mr. Olman said.

Now, with California residents enduring the real thing, Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Olman point to differences in the situation. California's utilities have relied on importing power instead of generating their own - making them vulnerable to market spikes.

The Midwest, however, has plenty of electric plants to meet the region's needs. It's only a question of keeping the plants running, particularly during the summer.

“California's problem is not going to go away until they build more plants,” Mr. Wilkins said.



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