How to Avoid More Blackouts ; Federal Study Blames Faulty Alarm System and Human Error for Massive Power Outage

By Ron Scherer and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2003 | Go to article overview

How to Avoid More Blackouts ; Federal Study Blames Faulty Alarm System and Human Error for Massive Power Outage


Ron Scherer and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Fifty million people didn't have to lose their power Aug. 14. But once the blackout "reached a certain magnitude," nothing could have kept it from cascading out of control.

That's one of the major conclusions of a report released Wednesday that looks at the events, actions, and failures that cost the nation billions of dollars and affected people from Ontario to Detroit to Long Island.

The report comes down particularly hard on two entities: FirstEnergy Corp., based in Akron, Ohio, and the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, which coordinates power transmission in the region. Among its findings:

* FirstEnergy's control-room alarm system wasn't working, which meant operators didn't know transmission lines had gone down, didn't take any action to keep the problem from spreading, and didn't alert anyone else.

* MISO's tools for analyzing the system were also malfunctioning, and its reliability coordinators were using outdated data for monitoring - all of which kept MISO from noticing what was happening with FirstEnergy in time.

* MISO and PJM Interconnection, the neighboring reliability coordinator, had no procedures to coordinate their reactions to transmission problems.

The next step in the process is a series of public forums in the US and Canada. This will lead to a final report, scheduled for January, that will make recommendations for improving the system. "We intend to use what we've learned from our investigation of August 14 to make the system even stronger and more reliable," says Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

The events of that day already are looming large in the nation's energy future. On Tuesday, the General Accounting Office issued an assessment of the blackout that could spur tougher federal regulation. The energy bill now wending its way through Congress is likely to set mandatory reliability standards, give the Feds a way to override states on placement of electrical grids, and offer new tax breaks for power generators. Combined with the blackout report, this could mean changes in the way regional system operators react to a crisis - and it could give the antiquated grid system a technological kick in the pants.

"You have a 1950s car, and you are replacing the parts by hand," says Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan group exploring other energy-policy options. "Let's get a new car."

So far, the major electricity systems and providers haven't implemented many changes. This is partly because they're waiting for the DOE's January report and the energy bill. But it's also because steps to upgrade the nation's electrical system are expensive and will take time to enact.

"We can't say, 'We should've, could've, would've,' until we understand what their findings are," says Kristen Baird, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy. …

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