TOPICS > Politics

Why the Lights Went Out

September 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Congress was in the middle of its summer recess when, on August 14, 50 million people in the United States and Canada lost their electricity. So today, as the House of Representatives reconvened for the first time in a month, Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wasted no time in opening two days of showcase hearings on the biggest power failure in history, and giving the committee’s 56 members a chance to weigh in.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: I think the American public wants us to examine what happened, why, and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ironically, a temporary audio failure in the hearing room muffled most of what the chairman had to say. But Tauzin did make clear the country needs a new, overall energy strategy, and called for swift passage of a comprehensive energy bill now moving through Congress.

Most members, however focused on the more immediate concern, electricity, with some arguing for an upgrade of the transmission grid that crisscrosses the nation, and establishment of transmission reliability standards for the thousands of utility companies that use and operate the grid. But for what caused the power to fail on august 14, the committee called on Spencer Abraham, Secretary of the Department of Energy. Abraham reported some progress by a joint task force investigation being conducted with the Canadian government, but said he could provide few answers.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Today, less than three weeks after the blackout, I think we’re making good progress in putting together the extraordinarily complex sequence of events which surrounded the incident, and while we’re encouraged by the progress, there is still a lot more to be done before we can determine exactly what caused the blackout and why it spread. We are gathering information on about 10,000 individual events that happened across thousands of square miles in the space of about nine seconds. All that information has to be collected, compiled, sequenced, and analyzed before any credible conclusions can be drawn.

The American portion of the area affected by the blackout included 34,000 miles of transmission lines and about 290 power-generating units, which is a substantial segment of the national total. As members of this committee who have worked on these issues know, this intricate network delivers electric power to virtually every home and business in America. Electricity, because it can’t be stored, must be produced almost the very instant it’s used, and it must be moved efficiently from where it is produced to where it’s being consumed, traveling over this highly technical grid system at the speed of light. Keeping this complicated web of interconnected wires and power plants and control facilities operating is, I think, a miracle of modern engineering, and it’s a miracle that happens 24 hours a day, all year round. It is, without a doubt, the most complex and elaborate piece of infrastructure that this country has.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Tauzin said it wasn’t as critical to determine how the power failure began as it was to figure out why it cascaded across the northeast as quickly as it did.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: Why did it spread? Why did these power surges develop, and why didn’t the protections in the grid work? Was it a failure of the reliability council having enforcement authority to make sure standards were enforced throughout the grid that would have prevented the spread, or was it something else?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: These things happen very fast, and yet humans are in various roles that are critical to the process, and people can’t move as fast as these events can develop.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: Were there communications problems? We understand there may have been.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: We’re looking at that, and we’re also looking at, obviously, the interesting question of how it… why certain areas were able to isolate themselves and others weren’t.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pennsylvania Republican Jim Greenwood wanted to know why gasoline prices spiked after the blackout.

REP. JAMES GREENWOOD: It’s $1.75 a gallon now, which is I believe the highest average retail price ever. I have no reason to believe that there is anything at work here other than the basic laws of supply and demand, but I can tell you that most of my constituents are not quite sure that that’s all there is to it. It seems to them that we had a hiccup here which produced a lasting and very significant increase in the price of gasoline.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: The nature of this fluctuation struck me as being unusually large as well, and in need of greater explanation. We have actually in this instance launched an internal inquiry on it– and I mean just started doing that– but I think we’ll hopefully get some additional insight into whether or not this was really a market reaction only or if other factors were involved.

KWAME HOLMAN: Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow:

KYLE McSLARROW: We did predict there would be, as most everyone knows, the inevitable price increase in the run-up to the Labor Day weekend. We have very low gas inventories. We have no margin for error. So once the pipeline in Arizona went down, you had three refineries– because of the blackout– you had some problems out in California with refineries. It all added up to a predictable increase. The question is– and what we’ll look into and work with our colleagues at the FDC about– is whether or not anybody took advantage of the situation in terms of market manipulation.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for what should be done short term on electricity, Michigan Democrat John Dingell argued Congress should put aside work on the comprehensive energy bill and quickly adopt standards of reliability for utilities that use the power grid before another power outage occurs.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: Can you tell us that waiting around for a big energy bill will give us assurances that we can protect people in the Northeast and the Midwest from the kinds of events that we saw on August 14, or are we better off, if we’re interested in reliability, to bring forward a provision which can be speedily passed on which there’s agreement in the House and the Senate already with regard to reliability?

SPENCER ABRAHAM: I guess I would say this, that every few weeks or months, at least during the time that I have held this job, there’s been a sector of the energy world that has had something either described as a crisis or certainly a serious problem, whether it’s natural gas storage a few weeks ago, or it’s this blackout, or it’s been high gasoline prices, whatever. I think to ignore those other challenges would be a big mistake.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: I’m not talking about ignoring them, Mr. Secretary. My time’s running out. I just want to observe that some of these other areas are much more controversial. We could get to the areas where we have agreement, do so quickly, and then proceed to address the other more contentious questions which could delay us addressing the reliability question.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, two of the governors most affected by the August 14 blackout couldn’t agree on what Congress should do next. Ohio Governor Bob Taft:

GOV. BOB TAFT: I would really encourage all of you to try to do what you can to enact at the earliest possible day date a energy bill that deals with these issues. Perhaps there’s a way you can use the impetus of what happened on August 14 to make agreements and compromises that get the country a strong energy policy that addresses among other issues the important challenge of improving our electrical transmission system in this country.

GOV. JENNIFER GRANHOLM: I respectfully disagree.

KWAME HOLMAN: Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm:

GOV. JENNIFER GRANHOLM: From our perspective, we need a quick response. If you can get the other quickly more power to you, but something tells me it might take a little bit longer than that. If you can get agreement in this area so critical to our nation’s citizens I urge you to do so in the most expeditious of fashions.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon, a panel of public utility commissioners representing the blacked-out region was asked their recollections about that day.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: You tell me there was an indication of something wrong within this area — some fluctuations of frequency, you saw a shift in the electric resonators, instead of a flow in one direction, they were shifting around the loop in another direction, an hour or so before. What happened? Who called whom? Did any of you get a phone call? Did any of your councilors get a phone call saying there’s something going on, that there were some real aberrations on the system going on?

CHARLES DURKIN, JR., Chairman, Northeast Power Coord. Council: I’ll answer that. So far we have investigated with NPCC that there was no phone calls.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: No phone calls?

CHARLES DURKIN, JR.: The first indication of a problem at NPPC was the reversal of flow that took place at about 4:10.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: Doesn’t that speak to real communication problems, if all this was happening and the right person didn’t get the right message to do the right thing?

MICHEHL GENT, President, North American Electric Reliability Council: Mr. Chairman, I have listened to many people testify today, and I would like to assure you communication equipment and protocols are all in place.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: But do they work well?

MICHEHL GENT: That’s part of the investigation.


KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow the committee hears from heads of the electric utilities themselves, including the Ohio company where the problem is believed to have originated.