Blackout remedies languish, panel says

More outages seen likely if rules are not adopted

April 06, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The nation's worst blackout, which left 50 million people in the dark in the United States and Canada last August, could have been prevented and could reoccur if a series of recommendations - including setting mandatory rules for utilities - are not adopted, investigators warned in a report released yesterday.

The U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force sent its final report to President Bush and Canada's prime minister, calling for mandatory electricity reliability standards and penalties for noncompliance, greater independence for the council that oversees the transmission grid, improved training and certification for grid operators and increased security.

The task force was formed to investigate widespread power outages Aug. 14, which cascaded across the Northeast and parts of Canada, cutting power in eight states and two provinces for several days.

An interim report released in November by the U.S. Department of Energy blamed a constellation of failures at Ohio's FirstEnergy Corp. as the principal trigger.

It pointed to the loss of three high-voltage transmission lines in northern Ohio - which short-circuited after the lines sagged onto untrimmed trees - and to a failure of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. operators to recognize and contain the problem.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who co-chaired the task force, said the investigation highlights the need for a comprehensive energy policy that would set compulsory transmission guidelines.

"Failure to implement the final report's recommendations could threaten the reliability of the electricity supply that is critical to the economic, energy and national security of our countries," Abraham warned. "It is vital that the U.S. Congress pass comprehensive energy legislation that includes mandatory reliability standards."

But Democrats have complained that the reliability standards are being held hostage by Republicans in Congress to other, less desirable, elements of the proposed comprehensive energy bill, including an array of financial breaks for energy companies.

Investigators found that although several of the causes of the blackout were strikingly similar to previous outages, efforts to adopt earlier recommendations fell short. At the same time, the potential for serious failures has increased as demand for power has grown and interconnections have become more densely woven and heavily loaded.

The task force issued 46 recommendations, including independent funding of the North American Electric Reliability Council and regional reliability councils to ensure their independence from the utilities they oversee. NERC was formed by the industry after the 1968 New York blackout as a voluntary organization to oversee reliability of the grid.

The task force wants to require that any company that is part of the bulk power system belong to a regional reliability council. It also advocated better training and certification of grid operators and enhanced security of the distribution network.

The task force backed a NERC directive that FirstEnergy correct deficiencies found in its operations by June 30.

"I think there's wide consensus that mandatory controls are better than voluntary controls, that better communication between control areas, better training to deal with system conditions, beefing up some of the protective systems are all ways to deal with the disturbances which will invariably occur on the grid," said Stephen Angle, a partner in the energy practice group of Vinson & Elkins, a Houston, Texas-based international law firm.

Many of the recommendations dovetail with initiatives now in the pipeline at NERC.

"A lot of these things were expected," said Jim Fama, executive director of energy delivery for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization representing utilities and energy companies.

"I think what we're looking at is the extent to which the recommendations are in sync or work well with those initiatives that NERC already has under way, and a lot of the NERC initiatives are supported by the industry."

NERC said yesterday that it has taken steps to improve reliability in the wake of the blackout by adopting interim guidelines for reporting reliability audit results and reliability standards violations, one of the key recommendations in a report the group issued Feb. 10.

The PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity through all or parts of Maryland and six other states, said the task force findings build upon the interim report.

"The recommendations certainly should be reviewed carefully, and that's what we're doing now," said Joe Patterson, a PJM spokesman. "And it's also important to note that PJM has taken steps to further enhance the reliability of the grid, prior to and including recommendations of the task force."

Constellation Energy Group, the owner of BGE, the utility that serves the Baltimore region, said it supports the recommendations.

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