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THE NATION

Experts Question Role of Power Grid 'Traffic Cops'

Poor communication among transmission firms, problems with managing the electricity flow are cited as factors leading to the blackout.

August 22, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If a major American airline or airport broke away from the air traffic control system and tried to manage flights on its own, the result would be chaos, or worse.

But as huge flows of electricity race across the nation's power grid, experts say, they often travel among separate traffic managers who may have little ability to see what's coming -- or to make sure there is adequate capacity to handle the power.

While it is unclear that these limitations contributed to last week's massive power blackout, some experts say the early evidence suggests that investigators should take a hard look at long-festering problems in how the "traffic cops" of the power grid are organized, and in how they cooperate with each other.

"I would not be surprised to see a post-mortem of the blackout that included this problem as part of the story," said Susan F. Tierney, a former Department of Energy official who is with Analysis Group, a Boston consulting firm.

"The management of the grid is all chopped up today. It's very hard to coordinate -- and this has to be coordinated on a minute-by-minute basis," said Philip Sharp, an energy consultant who as a House member from Indiana led an energy subcommittee.

An operator of power lines in Michigan is citing poor communication among transmission companies and "traffic cops" as a potential factor in the blackout.

"Whether it's a contributing factor or not, we need to find out. But it's at least a complicating factor," said the operator, Larry Bruneel, vice president of the International Transmission Co. of Ann Arbor.

According to a chronology prepared by International Transmission, problems first arose in the power grid two hours before the blackout, which struck about 4:10 p.m. Aug. 14.

At 2 p.m., a coal-fired plant run by FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, went offline in northern Ohio, the chronology says. In the following two hours, five transmission lines supplying Cleveland also shut down.

Then, in a series of rapid events just after 4 p.m., two more northern Ohio lines tripped, prompting FirstEnergy to pull a large amount of power from International Transmission lines in Michigan. Michigan plants and transmission lines shut down under the strain.

Bruneel said that at no time did International Transmission get a warning call from FirstEnergy or the "traffic cop" that monitors the grid in the region, Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc.

"We would have hoped that we would have been contacted, I guess first by FirstEnergy but then by others involved in this.... Clearly, a call could have been made that wasn't," Bruneel said.

Had they received a warning call, Bruneel said, engineers in Michigan might have taken steps to better supply power to northern Ohio. It is unclear whether this would have prevented what came next: a spread of the problem beyond Ohio and Michigan.

At 4:10 p.m., FirstEnergy was still demanding power, and many Michigan sources were going offline.

That prompted the supplier for the province of Ontario to try to support Michigan and Ohio. But the strain soon damaged electricity flows in Ontario, New York and other regions that stayed connected to the grid, according to the International Transmission chronology, which was first reported Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

A FirstEnergy spokesman said the company was still investigating events and could not comment. At the Midwest ISO, Chief Executive Jim Torgerson said: "We made the communications that we believed were appropriate based on the information we were seeing at the time."

Torgerson also said the grid manager initiated three calls to FirstEnergy, a member of the Midwest ISO, within an hour before the utility's lines failed.

Some people who have studied the power grid have long warned that coordination among transmission companies was lacking.

When power demands arrive at a portion of the grid, Tierney said, it is sometimes akin to a Chicago air traffic controller seeing 20 planes arriving from New York with no warning -- on a route that usually handles one plane.

Traffic regulators on the grid are known as Regional Transmission Organizations, or RTOs. They have grown in importance since the mid-1990s, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began promoting deregulation and allowing more companies to sell power.

With more companies buying and selling power, federal regulators wanted RTOs to ensure that all the players had fair access to transmission lines. Because open markets also increased the amount of traffic on the power lines, RTOs were supposed to make sure the traffic moved smoothly.

But RTOs have not worked out as planned in some regions.

The Northwest and Southeast have opposed RTOs, in some cases because of fears that low-cost power in those regions would be snapped up by companies in high-cost regions.

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