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Outage Blamed on Failure to Alert Utilities

August 22, 1996|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The massive blackout Aug. 10 in the West could have been avoided if officials in Oregon had simply notified California electric utilities when the first power line failed more than an hour and 40 minutes before the whole system went down, experts testified Wednesday.

They also revealed a host of additional problems--including poor communication, out-of-service power plants and a maze of conflicting federal agencies with piecemeal oversight of various elements of the power system--that might have made the blackout worse than it had to be.

Had such utilities as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison been alerted at the outset, they could have taken steps to avert the outage, according to a top PG&E official testifying at an emergency meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

But operators of the Oregon transmission grid were not required to notify other utilities of potential problems when the first of five power lines sagged into a tree at 2:06 p.m. on Aug. 10, well before 4 million people in nine states were left without power.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 23, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Power outage--Due to an editing error, a story in Thursday's editions on the causes of the recent massive power outage misstated the number of homes run by 4,330 megawatts. The correct number is 4.3 million homes.

It was not until 3:47 p.m., when a third power line tripped in Oregon, that operators made the call. By then, the shutdown of the entire system was only six minutes away.

"The magnitude of the problem wasn't recognized until it was too late," said E. James Macias, PG&E's general manager of electric transmission. The procedure has been changed so that operators now inform others about any such line failure.

The agency responsible for the Oregon transmission lines that triggered the outage is the federal Bonneville Power Administration, whose chief executive, Randy Hardy, testified.

"The issue is not the failure to follow procedures. . . . but that maybe the procedures weren't adequate to deal with the circumstances. We don't know that yet," he said.

Many of the problems cited Wednesday concerned the power system in Oregon, where simultaneous line outages tripped generators and cut electricity on the main lines to California. Although some problems have been corrected, others are still under review, utility executives, regulators and others told the PUC.

In the meantime, imports of cheap Pacific Northwest hydroelectric power to California have been cut to 67% of capacity to reduce the load on a system that critics say has become seriously strained.

"The transmission grid is taxed to its maximum capabilities, and the margin of error has been cut way down," said Nettie Hoge, head of the consumer group Toward Utility Rate Normalization, or TURN. "As we rush toward cheaper power in whatever form we do it, we could be experiencing more of these outages."

Testimony revealed a number of problems that combined to trigger the massive blackout:

* About 20% of the power capacity along the Columbia River in Oregon, which could have been tapped to support voltage in remaining power lines as the line failures occurred, was not in service because maintenance was being performed, Hardy said. He added that such maintenance decisions are not made by the Bonneville Power Administration. The plants are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, though it was unclear at the hearing who decides on maintenance.

* At the same time, the key Dalles Dam power plant on the Columbia River was generating less power than usual because water was being diverted to accommodate the running of chinook salmon. That plant could also have bolstered voltage on the lines. The plant is subject to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act as administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hardy said the decision to curtail power in the Dalles plant saved about half a dozen endangered fish and about 2,000 other fish, prompting PUC President P. Gregory Conlon to remark with incredulity: "We lost power for 4 million people because of five or six fish?" On the Monday after the blackout, the Fisheries Service waived its fishprotection requirements so power production could be boosted, leading the Portland Oregonian to report: "Fish sacrificed to ensure electricity."

* In response to questions from PUC Commissioner Jessie J. Knight Jr., Hardy enumerated the federal agencies that share jurisdiction over the Columbia River, the dams and power stations along it, and the power system connected to it. They include the Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Reclamation, the Fisheries Service and Bonneville. Knight called it a "spider web" of control.

* The Western Systems Coordinating Council, the regional consortium of utilities and others responsible for ensuring the reliability of the region's transmission grid, has no authority to compel its members to do anything to comply with its standards, said Dennis Eyre, its executive director.

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