Strict Rules Needed to Prevent Future Blackouts

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 6, 2004 (ENS) - Last summer's massive blackout was preventable and immediate steps should be taken to limit the chances of it happening again, investigators said on Monday. The binational team probing the disaster said power plant operators should be held legally accountable for failing to follow reliability standards and procedures that should have prevented the worst blackout in North American history.

"Voluntary compliance with reliability rules is no longer adequate," according to the final report of the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force.

The report calls for the implementation of mandatory and enforceable electricity reliability standards in both the United States and Canada, with penalties for noncompliance and appropriate government oversight.

The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a nonprofit corporation comprised of all segments of the electric industry, currently administers the rules, but it does not have authority to punish companies that fail to comply.

That must change, said the task force, which also recommended greater independence and additional funding for NERC and the regional reliability councils in order to ensure their independence from the parties they oversee. grid

Experts say upgrading the nation's power grid will cost at least $50 billion to $100 billion. (Photo courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
"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," said U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

"The final report is a thorough examination of the electricity system before and during the blackout," said John Efford, Minister of Natural Resources Canada. "It is very important that these recommendations be implemented."

The blackout on August 14, 2003 left some 50 million people across eight U.S. states from Michigan to New York and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Power was not restored to some parts of the United States for four days and the blackout cost the two nations as much as $10 billion combined.

The final report identifies seven violations of the voluntary reliability standards administered by NERC and four systemic groups of causes of the blackout - inadequate system understanding, inadequate situational awareness, inadequate tree trimming, and inadequate reliability coordinator diagnostic support.

It reaffirms the task force's interim report, which blamed Ohio based FirstEnergy for setting off a sequence of events that caused the widespread power loss.

Three high-voltage transmission lines operated by FirstEnergy in Ohio short-circuited and went out of service when they came into contact with trees that were too close to the lines, according to the task force.

Investigators criticized the energy company for not following industry policies and for reacting slowly and inadequately to the initial event.

FirstEnergy's control room alarm and monitoring systems were not working properly, and the control room operators were unaware it was not working, so they were unaware that transmission lines had gone down.

The task force said the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), the reliability coordinator for FirstEnergy, shares some of the responsibility for the spread of the blackout.

MISO failed to provide effective diagnostic support to FirstEnergy once the power outages began to cascade, according to the report.

It lacked an effective means of identifying the location and significance of transmission line breaker operations, and so was not aware of important line outages in time to prevent the blackout, the task force said.

The poor communication and inadequate equipment allowed the one relatively small event in Ohio to cascade into the massive blackout, the report concluded.

The cascade rolled through power lines running from Ohio through Michigan, into Canada and down through New York state.

The task force reviewed previous major North American power outages and found that the causes of the August 14, 2003 blackout were strikingly similar to those of earlier outages. newyorkcrowd

New Yorkers spilled into the streets around Times Square as power went out across the city on August 14. (Webcam image courtesy Webcams Aus Aller Welt)
This finding reinforces the need for effective implementation of its recommendations, the task force reported.

Abraham said the report "makes clear that this blackout could have been prevented and that immediate actions must be taken in both the United States and Canada to ensure that our electric system is more reliable."

"It is vital that the U.S. Congress pass comprehensive energy legislation that includes mandatory reliability standards," Abraham said.

But it is the Bush administration's comprehensive energy bill that many blame for the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass mandatory reliability standards.

Republican leaders in the Congress have balked at attempts to pass the standards as standalone legislation, an approach favored by Democrats who do not support the energy bill.

If Congress fails to pass mandatory reliability standards, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should explore its options to put such standards in place, the task force recommended.

But reliability standards would only address some of concerns that have emerged as the nation asks its aging transmission infrastructure to do a job it was not designed to carry out.

Much of the nation's transmission system was built to move electricity from massive utilities to local customers, but the grid now handles massive power transmissions that zip across the nation.

This is a lucrative business for utilities, but some argue it is putting undue pressure on the transmission infrastructure. And deregulation at the state level - prompted by a 1992 federal energy bill - means utilities are no longer required to reinvest ratepayer money into the transmission system.

According to NERC, utilities spent some $300 million less on upgrades and maintenance to the nation's transmission system in 2000 than they did in 1990 and now have fewer people to carry out such projects.

Experts believe the nation's grid could do with some $50 billion to $100 billion in upgrades and maintenance but there is little sign the utilities are eager to foot the bill.

The final report of the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force can be found here.