How to avoid more blackouts

Federal study blames faulty alarm system and human error for massive power outage.

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• MISO's tools for analyzing the system were also malfunctioning, and its reliability coordinators were using outdated data for monitoring - all of which kept MISO from noticing what was happening with FirstEnergy in time.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. She adds, "There were some events on our system, and they might explain an outage that was localized, but they wouldn't explain one that spanned as far as it did."

MISO has also been waiting for the report and the January recommendations, but has made a few changes already. Concrete steps include an expanded video projection system in its control room that lets operators see the entire grid, developing a new computer-monitoring tool, and more training for control-room personnel.

MISO is also developing a "comprehensive reliability charter" that will spell out in detail the roles and responsibilities of both local area operators and MISO when a blackout occurs.

"We would readily agree that we need to do a better job with respect to communication," says Gary Rasp, a spokesman for MISO. Reliability has always been a priority, he adds, but the blackout "raised the bar even higher, and we're trying to respond."

Some of the largest changes are taking place in Washington. For example, the proposed energy bill will require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to establish mandatory electric-reliability standards. Currently, standards are voluntary, set by an industry group.

To establish the standards, FERC will have to estimate how much electricity the nation needs in the future. This will require it to look at both state and regional energy plans, says Stan Wise, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

"Perhaps FERC will accept reports for a region and look at that every three years as we do," says Mr. Wise, who is also a public utility commissioner in the state of Georgia.

Whatever the decisions, they will take time to implement. In the meantime, individuals, businesses, and local governments are making their own decisions. Cushman & Wakefield, a national property manager based in New York, is accelerating the placement of photo illumination tape that glows in stairwells and around emergency doors.

"It will probably be required in a new building code," says Joseph Wick, managing director of asset services at the company.

In New York's Saratoga County, a new backup dispatch center is in the works in case the primary radio communications at the county jail is again cut off.

And in New York City, the blackout has changed some behavior. Many residents now keep fresh batteries around, some people have decided to avoid parking garages with elevators, and others have stocked up on bottled water.

Todd Kilburn, an office administrator, has rounded up a big flashlight, a 99 cent radio, and a supply of granola bars. But despite his preparations, he says, "I don't think I'll ever be ready for the next blackout."

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