U.S.-Canada panel to report today on Northeast blackout

Some fear energy bill could negate lessons

November 19, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Investigators probing the cause of the epic Northeast blackout this summer will release findings today that are expected to help shape new rules governing the nation's electricity system.

But some people fear that any lessons learned from the report on the sweeping Aug. 14 power failure would be eclipsed by a 1,400-page energy bill being voted on by Congress. The bill is likely to win final congressional approval this week.

"It's safe to say that the timing of the report renders it useless as a policy-setting tool," said Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a Democratic member of the Energy Committee. "It would have been more helpful to have several weeks ago."

The study, the work of a U.S.-Canadian task force, will be unveiled by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal. It is expected to pinpoint the roots of a blackout that spread throughout much of the Northeast and parts of Canada in minutes, cutting power to 50 million electric customers.

The task force is expected to issue recommendations for preventing future widespread outages in a second phase, after public forums in both countries early next month.

The report is expected to shed light on key questions, including whether communication broke down among grid operators or whether any companies failed to comply with voluntary transmission rules intended to maintain the delicate balance between the electricity generated and consumed.

A preliminary report by the task force showed that a voltage collapse caused power plants and lines to disconnect - the first at a plant in central Ohio several hours before the final crash - but did not offer a precise cause or an explanation for the widespread outages.

A separate report by the Michigan Public Service Commission found that all the transmission line and power plant outages that occurred in the two and a half hours before the power surge leading to the blackout involved facilities of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and American Electric Power Co. Inc. in Ohio.

The findings are being made public a day after the House passed a far-reaching but controversial energy bill that includes creating mandatory rules on the use of the nation's transmission grid.

The bill would set up regional transmission organizations that would develop and enforce mandatory standards and rules with oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Compliance with rules, overseen by the North American Electric Reliability Council, is voluntary now.

If the task force's findings point to a lapse in compliance with those rules, "that will be added ammunition to build the case for a reliability organization that does have the authority to cite and sanction people who don't follow the rules," said Jim Owen, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a trade group of publicly held electric companies.

Regardless of what the report reveals, he said, "I think that the nature of the findings that will be released will help shape both the structure and the tone of what's to come next. If a number of protocols were found to be violated, if violations are uncovered and documented, that will give people who shape a [energy policy] platform some raw material to work with."

Consumer groups worry that policy-makers will have little time to absorb the task force's findings.

"There are lots and lots of reasons why the energy bill should not be passed, and one of them is, it will be too late to respond to any needed policy changes based on the results of this report," said Janee Briesemeister, a senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

Others worry that there won't be enough attention paid to strengthening the accountability and standards of the power companies.

"Because the energy bill is moving through ... it doesn't seem like they're having time to reflect on what's coming out in the report," said Catherine Morrison, staff attorney for U.S. PIRG, who called the electricity portion of the energy bill a step back on electric policy.

"Now we've had a huge blackout and we're just starting to find out what the causes might be," she said. "Instead of giving thought and attention to where the grid will go and how to make it more reliable, we're moving forward with this electricity title that could make matters worse."

Briesemeister said her group also fears that whatever problem the blackout report points to, "people will conclude that the fix is to throw more money at the system, which increases electricity prices for consumers."

"We think we should be looking deeper into the reasons for the blackout," she said. "Did deregulation create the conditions for the blackout and cause [companies] to cut back on maintenance, system operations and staffing, and to defer investment needed for the transmission system?"

The North American Electric Reliability Council has asked utilities and independent system operators to assess how well they are following reliability rules concerning the handling of system failures as well as communications between grid operators and coordinators.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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