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Debate on Upgrading Power Grid Heats Up

An Ohio utility says its lines aren't solely to blame for the blackout. The Energy secretary says improvements may mean higher rates.

August 18, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — As the water here became drinkable again and electricity returned to all but a few thousand of the millions of people affected by last week's blackout, policy makers and industry officials Sunday began debating how to improve the nation's aging and underpowered electrical grid.

The utility that owns the Ohio transmission lines suspected of triggering the blackout said glitches in its system alone probably did not account for the massive failure.

The Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. said that problems in the Eastern Interconnection, the main grid east of the Rocky Mountains, surfaced about noon Thursday, two hours before its first plant went offline and four hours before the blackout.

"Based on what we know now, changes ... were occurring elsewhere in the area -- frequency and voltage fluctuations, and load swings on the grid," said FirstEnergy spokeswoman Kristen Baird.

"Clearly, there were some very unusual conditions in the broad region, not just our system. What happened that day seems to be far more complex than a few tripped power lines."

The head of the industry group that aims to keep electricity flowing cautioned against blaming FirstEnergy, saying that problems at other power entities might also have fueled the widespread outages.

"Although we may have identified the area where the cascading outages began, any attempt on our part to identify the cause ... would be speculative and premature," said Michehl R. Gent, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Sunday that he had dispatched teams of investigators to sites in the Northeast and the upper Midwest in a federal inquiry of the blackout.

As they look for answers, it is clear that officials studying how to upgrade the electrical grid will also be forced to grapple with such issues as states' rights, federal oversight of private enterprises and varying electricity prices around the country.

On Sunday, the Bush administration called on Congress to require that utilities either comply with reliability standards designed to keep electricity flowing or face sanctions.

NERC, which was created following a major blackout in the Northeast in 1965, has been asking Congress for two years for the authority to enforce such standards.

Compliance with the standards is voluntary.

Another problem in the largely deregulated utility marketplace has been convincing utilities to invest in new lines, power plants and other infrastructure. Abraham said Sunday the way to provide utilities with the incentive to reinvest was to pass some of the cost on to consumers.

"The people who benefit from the system have to be part of the solution here," Abraham said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "That means the ratepayers are going to have to contribute. We think the rates need to be sufficient to incentivize the building of new transmission."

At the same time various regulatory bodies are pushing to enforce reliability rules and work toward a more even, standardized system, utilities opposing reforms have found company among some states.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, has sought to construct a system of regional grid managers, which it argues would improve the flow of power nationwide.

On Sunday, the Bush administration said it would seek at least a three-year delay of such a system, which is already opposed by several states, especially in the South and Northwest.

The South regulates its own system and enjoys some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. Officials there contend that federal oversight will merely drive up prices.

In the Northwest, electricity prices soared during the California utility crisis, and FERC did not step in. The less oversight by FERC the better, say many Republican lawmakers in the Northwest.

"The [FERC] measure," Abraham said on "Fox News Sunday," "goes to the question of whether or not we would mandate and force down the throats of regional areas of the country a federal approach to deregulation of the marketplace."

Opponents of the regional management idea saw their argument dramatically, if unfortunately, bolstered Thursday: The blackout occurred despite the fact that in the Northeast the grid is organized in a way similar to that proposed by FERC.

Meanwhile, as most parties call for more transmission lines, Congress has been unwilling to grant FERC the powers of eminent domain. So even when a utility decides to foot the bill for a new line, opposition from neighbors often quashes the deal.

"This is not a partisan issue," Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on ABC's "This Week."

"It's not Clinton's fault, it's not Bush's fault. It's a problem with weak grids around the country ... because people simply don't want to have power lines in their back yards."

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