TOPICS > Politics

Why the Lights Went Out

September 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now more on the August blackout. In a second day of hearings, a congressional panel today asked power company executives how 50 million people lost their electricity within seconds. Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The massive power outage that swept across the Northeast on August 14, involved hundreds of electricity generating plants and thousands of miles of transmission lines. And while the reasons for the lightning speed and spread of the blackout still are being determined, all indicators point to First Energy Corporation in Akron Ohio as the source of the trouble. But this morning, sitting before the House Energy Committee, along with the heads of other utilities caught in the power collapse, Peter Burg, chairman and CEO of First Energy, was willing to accept some but not all of the blame.

H. PETER BURG: Mr. Chairman, even though the events of august 14 are complicated and interrelated in ways that I think we don’t yet understand, we believe that it’s not possible for a few isolated events on any individual utility system to explain the widespread nature of this outage.

KWAME HOLMAN: One by one, the utility executives recounted for committee members what happened that Thursday afternoon when something still undetermined, triggered a series of events. First Energy was supplying power to most of Northern Ohio.

H. PETER BURG: Following the trip of several generating units in the region in the early afternoon, including our East Lake Unit Number 5, power flows adjusted as expected and our system was in balance. And while a number of transmission lines in and outside of our system tripped off later, power flows into and out of First Energy, had not significantly changed as of 4:05 P.M. our time.

The system was automatically adjusting to these events. At 4:06 P.M., FirstEnergy’s Sam Star transmission line tripped. That’s when a small flow reversal with power now flowing from Michigan into Ohio occurred but not in a magnitude that would appear to be of particular significance at that point. Then at approximately 4:09 P.M., following the trip of two other lines in the region outside of our system, power flow from Michigan to Ohio substantially increased. But much if not most of it passed through our system into other systems. After that, additional transmission lines and generating plants begin to trip off to protect themselves from damage. This all occurred automatically on our system, and to the best of my knowledge, it happened automatically on other systems throughout the region.

KWAME HOLMAN: But American Electric Power, based in Columbus and serving central Ohio, managed to stay up and running. Linn Draper is president and C.E.O.

E. LINN DRAPER: From an operational standpoint, the 14th was a fairly typical August day until we detected a transmission line problem at an interconnection with our neighbor FirstEnergy. AEP contacted FirstEnergy to discuss the problems, and we remained in extensive communication throughout with our reliability coordinator, PJM, and with First Energy. As the power 2010 exceeded safe operating levels, our equipment in northern Ohio automatically tripped to isolate the problem. The protection devices isolated our system and prevented damage to equipment.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: Why were you able to separate and others were not?

E. LINN DRAPER: You give us more credit in terms of physical actions. In fact, we separated automatically. The protective systems that are designed into the transmission system is operated as they should and automatically separated,. Why others did not, I don’t know.

KWAME HOLMAN: International Transmission, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and serving the southern part of the state, went down immediately. CEO Joseph Welch.

JOSEPH WELCH: Basically I became aware of the system aberration when the lights in my office went out. I immediately… I was on a telephone call. I got up from my chair, went downstairs, which is where the control center is physically located in our office building. And I asked what had happened. And by that time, I was told that we were on emergency back-up generation in the control center and that all the generation had tripped off line.

Three minutes prior to this happening, every system in our… that our control center sees, which is essentially the lower peninsula of Michigan, everything… every flow, all voltage readings were totally normal.

KWAME HOLMAN: The power surges cascaded up into and across Canada, then down into New York City, serviced by Consolidated Edison. President and C.E.O. Eugene McGrath.

EUGENE McGRATH: Just before 4:11 in the afternoon, voltage on our system began fluctuating wildly and declining, and frequency began to drop. Low system frequency triggered sensors that act waited an automatic four-step under frequency load-shedding program, disconnecting approximately 50 percent of our load. The voltage continued to fluctuate, and by fluctuate, I mean it went down to less than 10 percent of its normal voltage and did not recover. There was a loss of generation and transmission, and our system shut down very quickly.

SPOKESMAN: Did you warn any of those to whom you were intertied or to the independent system operator that you were seeing these kinds of things?

SPOKESMAN: We saw the lights blinking, voltage swinging rapidly, and our system shut down within seconds.

KWAME HOLMAN: And from New York City over to long island, serviced by the long island power authority. Chairman and C.E.O. Richard Kessel.

RICHARD KESSEL, Long Island Power Authority: People in our control room had about nine seconds of advanced warning, no calls were made to us. The entire system dropped about a 1,084,000 customers within two minutes, and we immediately after this occurred within a minute or two, we reached out to the New York independent system operator to inform them and to find out what was going on.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Jim greenwood wanted to turn the focus back to First Energy company, and to the transcripts of taped control room conversations from August 14 that indicate a computer alarm system at first energy failed to warn of the pending disaster.

REP. JIM GREENWOOD: A significant part of the problem here was that the guys in the fields out in the generators were calling in reporting very unusual, massive voltage swings, problems in the field. And that the folks at the control center were essentially flying blind because they weren’t seeing this in their computers and, therefore, they didn’t respond. Is that a fair analysis?

H. PETER BURG: Well, we know that the manual alarm system was not working at some point in the afternoon.

REP. JIM GREENWOOD: Right, but I’m specifically getting at the fact that here’s a guy out at a power plant calling in and saying, “my God, we’ve got these huge problems out here. What’s going on?” And your guy’s staring at the screen saying, “we don’t see anything” and therefore, not reacting. Is that an overstatement?

H. PETER BURG: Well, what they were seeing– and again, we’re investigating this to the nth degree. We want to know as much as you do about what was on that screen and what was not. The screens were not black. The screens were on. The question is whether or not they were updating themselves as they should have been doing during that sequence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Burg’s day before the committee ended with a scathing review of First Energy’s performance record, delivered by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: There was a pattern here, Mr. Burge. You failed to properly maintain your nuclear power plant, you have been found liable by the courts for violating the clean air act by spewing pollution into the air at some of our other plants. And you freely acknowledge that, on the 14th of August, you had wires going down but no warning flags going up.

KWAME HOLMAN: All Burg would say is that First Energy will continue to cooperate in the investigation of the August 14 blackout.