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Newsmaker: Spencer Abraham

November 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: A U.S.-Canadian task force concluded today there were two major underlying reasons for the cascading blackout of August 14: First, failures by an Ohio- based utility company, First Energy Corporation, ranging from inadequate tree-trimming and monitoring to failing to meet industry reliability standards. Second, failures by the region’s industry-run grid overseer, the so-called Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, to meet reliability standards and monitor and communicate what was unfolding.

We get more now from Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. He chaired the task force. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Thank you, Margaret. It’s good to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, take us through this incredible event that occurred. What triggered it?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, what we now have discovered, based on several months of analysis by hundreds of investigators is that in the state of Ohio, First Energy Company, which operates a portion of that grid, had a number of major transmission lines go out of service because trees conflicted with the lines in some fashion. When those lines started going off-service, the alarm systems and diagnostic equipment at First Energy, which should have alerted control room officers to this problem, just didn’t work. They didn’t know it was happening.

So they didn’t have the time they normally would have to have found ways to ameliorate the problem before it grew out of control. And essentially what happened was that the lines went down, the transmission… the generation had to go somewhere, and it began overloading other lines. And then you had a cascade.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me stop you there though. Did the guys in the control room for the company, did they know their computer systems weren’t working?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: They did not know their alarms weren’t working. They were receiving calls from other people who were affected by this, who were experiencing unusual conditions, but they kept checking their own equipment and saying, “No, we aren’t seeing any real problem.” And that seems to have been the pattern.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, so then all the power that should have been on their line starts going… that’s the way the system works, to other lines.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Exactly. And essentially you started having the electricity trying to find alternative corridors, but at ever larger amounts in the smaller numbers of corridors. And then what this was doing was tripping lines in these areas that were being overwhelmed by the surge. And when the lines would go out, then the generators would go out and power was being lost. And this kind of happened on a wide… obviously, a wide regional basis once the cascade began.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are also these system operators, which, I gather, are industry-run or industry-appointed, but they’re supposed to oversee all this. Now, what were the failures there?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, the Midwest Independent Systems Operator has a responsibility under the existing reliability standards to work with the various units, the control offices in their region, to also diagnose problems and alert people if they see instability in the grid. But their diagnostic equipment either wasn’t working right or not working, or not adequate to pick up these problems either.

And so they weren’t sending either to First Energy Company or to others who could have done things the warnings that would have helped us to avert this, because there’s a lot of things you can do before it’s too late. You can take power off the system, you can shed load. But if one of these buildups gets too intense, there’s a point of no return and the cascade begins and it’s irreversible. That’s what happened here.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you said today at your press conference that this was preventable, you mean it was preventable really at any point along the chain?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: What I’m saying is that once the lines started coming down, if they had in fact been… if that happened, if there had been this problem to begin with, there should have been alerts, there should have been… there should have been notice to the people who could have taken action quickly: First Energy Company, the Midwest Independent Systems Operator.

They could have done things to have prevented this from cascading if they had known about it up to a certain point. But once three major lines were down, the buildup, the surge was then really irreversible. And so not having the equipment working, not having the proper diagnostic tools meant that they just didn’t have the time once the system began to break down to reverse it.

MARGARET WARNER: But you said earlier and you said today their major responsibility is to have the proper diagnosis tools. I mean, how did this happen that both the company and the overseer that nothing was working?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, the responsibility for maintaining a reliable transmission grid is one that’s shared by an awful lot of players who have a role in the grid: Companies that either generate and transmit energy or just play the role of being the transmission systems or monitoring them. But they don’t have to observe standards of… high levels of standards of behavior under federal law.

The reliability standards, as we call them, are voluntary. And it’s our contention, and the report, I think, would bring you in this direction, that we need enforceable standards where punishments would be exacted if people didn’t meet the high standards of behavior they should, so that there really be the kind of pressure on the people involved in the system to make sure they have the best equipment, the best trained people, the best communication systems and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: I gather in the energy bill that’s now making its way through Congress, they call them what? They call them mandatory standards, but are there any penalties?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Yeah, well, what the bill calls for would be to make these standards of behavior enforceable reliability standards, enforceable through punishments that could be exacted against someone who doesn’t meet them. Right now the standards are voluntary. You are encouraged to meet them, you probably want to meet them– you don’t want to see the system go down– but you don’t have to meet them in order to avoid penalty. And we believe that there should be this kind of power vested in the federal government to make sure that the systems run properly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why this… why was this particular energy company so lax? Had they just not made the investment in the equipment, and why was this particular system overseer also incapable of handling it?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, to this point, our investigation, which today produced an interim report, has looked at what happened, the sequence of events, and why that happened, in terms of who was responsible. We have not tried to go further. We just haven’t had the time to go into an in-depth analysis of the companies involved to find out what specifically caused them to make decisions or not make decisions that would be relevant. However, we also haven’t given them a chance to comment, which they’ll now have the opportunity to do. And we may learn more as the process moves forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Has either this company or this overseer done anything since then to at least fix these problems?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, I honestly am not aware of any ameliorating action by them at this point. But we haven’t… I haven’t been apprised as to any changes they’ve made. We’ll be learning more about that in the second phase of our effort as well.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, I think what Americans want to know is could this happen again just as easily? I mean, are we just one accident, one downed transmission line away from another blackout potentially?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, again, every day… this grid that we have in the United States is very interconnected and interrelated. And every day events happen: Lines go out, generators go off- line. What we have is a system of checks and balances, though, where there’s usually time to make corrections. This could have been prevented if people had known about it, if they had the proper equipment to do their job. The question now is, will it happen in the future? We believe that the attention that’s been focused on this blackout probably has already had a positive impact on the way people behave. But I think unless there’s a mandatory and enforceable set of standards in place, the risk is greater. And if we had had them in place, I don’t think this blackout would have occurred.

MARGARET WARNER: As I’m sure you know, that the industry hired some consultants, who put out a report I think about a week ago. And they… this report said it’s really the fault of deregulation; that is, that this system was built to operate under regulation. And under deregulation, it’s every man or every company for himself, that there’s no incentive really to cooperate. Everyone’s just trying to move all this power around the country, find the cheapest rate, sell it when they can, and that the whole system, the whole infrastructure isn’t even set up to handle it.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, deregulation doesn’t affect the transmission system. That competition is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And my point would be very simply this: that we’ve had blackouts in times in which we had a highly regulated system. The key is to have in place fail-safes, checks and balances, a variety of communications tools and diagnostic tools to prevent this. This didn’t happen here. And I don’t think it would matter what kind of system you had, even if you had one company running the whole grid. If they aren’t maintaining their equipment in the right condition, if they aren’t doing the right things, then you could have this problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you know whether there are other major utility companies or other regions of the country where this sort of grid overseer has similar problems?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: We have not studied the other regions. We have studied and focused on the blackout of August 14. We’ve only had a couple of months, and there’s a huge amount of data we had to assess. Over 10,000 events happened in nine seconds, so this has been the focus of our task force. Now, I think what we’ve learned is sufficient to cause us to make recommendations in the second phase that will address how we might examine or look to the future to examine everybody in the system.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Sen. Schumer today during this debate on the Senate floor said, “Look, what we learned from the blackout is we really need a national grid; someone has to be in charge of the whole thing; we can’t have all these different regions.” And he was critical of the bill because it doesn’t establish a national grid. But is a national grid the answer?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Well, we have an eastern interconnect and a western interconnect in the grid already. The issue isn’t how many people are running their region; it’s that people have to observe high standards of behavior. And you’ve got to be able to enforce them.

If you had a national grid with one operator, you had twenty or even a hundred operators, if you don’t have the ability to compel people to observe high standards of conduct, then you run a greater risk. And that’s why the bill is the right thing because it would put those enforceability standards in place.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Secretary, thank you.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Thank you.