November 25, 2003
Ignoring a Forest for the Tree Trimming
ASHINGTON, Nov. 24 — From an ill-timed lunch to some too-tall trees, the immediate causes of the Aug. 14 blackout were made clear in a report issued last week. But a variety of experts now say the findings were too narrow, ignoring the federal government's role in the recent reshaping of the power industry.
Two organizations that operate in the part of Ohio where the problems originated, FirstEnergy, a utility, and the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, or Midwest I.S.O., a regional agency that was supposed to be overseeing FirstEnergy, were created as part of the deregulation process.
The report found that when the blackout hit, FirstEnergy and the Midwest I.S.O. were poorly prepared for their responsibilities.
But the authors, including experts from the Energy Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, agencies that have been encouraging deregulation for years, did not address the question of how the industry assumed its current structure.
"Maybe the report doesn't go there because the answer is not one that's comfortable politically," said Alan H. Richardson, the president of the American Public Power Association, a trade association for electric companies owned by states and cities. Mr. Richardson said examining the role of deregulation in the Midwest grid could have taken the Energy Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission "to an area where they didn't want to go."
That area is the federal role in encouraging the creation of the Midwest I.S.O., the transmission system operator. The report said that Midwest had the computer tools to diagnose the electric grid in its territory and make prompt changes in response to line failures, but that "these systems are under development and not fully mature."
The agency was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in December 2001 as part of the transition to competitive electricity markets, and has members in 15 states from Texas to Ohio, and in the province of Manitoba.
In detailing the Midwest I.S.O.'s shortcomings, the report said that a computer technician at the agency shut down a computer program to fix it, and then went to lunch without turning it back on.
An expert in electric transmission, Robert Blohm, asked, "How come nobody has examined this horror story, of how they set up an entity 10 times more complex than any known one, in such a short period of time?"
"Nobody's gone into how prudently this was done," said Mr. Blohm, a consultant and member of the North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry group.
Other experts were critical of the report's evaluation of FirstEnergy, which was cited for shortcomings that included improperly trimming trees under its power lines.
"There are a lot of aspects in this blackout that have not been touched by this report," said another expert, John A. Casazza, a retired executive with Public Service Electric and Gas of New Jersey. "The root causes that they name are not really the root causes. The root causes are what has happened as a result of our government policy." The problem, Mr. Casazza said, was that deregulation had "provided the incentive to maximize profits now rather than provide long-range service," and basic maintenance like tree trimming.
One transmission expert involved in the investigation said the ultimate cause of the blackout might be that "we've made it a lot more complicated with market rules and independent system operators," as the operation of the grid was adapted to competition. But, the expert said, "The cause may be that people who were supposed to pay attention to reliability during the transition didn't."
The report also did not address whether unstable computer systems and poorly trained operators — conditions cited in the report — were prevalent around the country.
A spokeswoman for the Energy Department, Jeanne Lopatto, said the task force had followed the mandate laid out by President Bush and the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien. The report was an interim one, Ms. Lopatto said, and other experts were welcome to make suggestions at future public hearings.
She added that there was no one else qualified to do the work involved in the report. "I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with the technical expertise who was not somehow directly related to the electric industry," Ms. Lopatto said.
The report, however, was compiled differently than some other government-sponsored reports on complex engineering challenges. To investigate the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the government brought in independent experts. And for plane crashes, there is an entire agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, that is separate from the airlines, government aviation regulators and other interest groups.
A senior investigator in the group that wrote the report on the blackout, speaking on condition that he not be more closely identified, said: "I don't think we're done with the process yet. Everything is on the table when it comes to recommendations."