Blackout warnings came too late, power grid operator says

Friday, August 29, 2003

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Warning signs in the Midwest didn't come early enough to stop the nation's largest blackout from spreading, mid-Atlantic grid operators said Thursday, noting they got the first overload call about 40 minutes before the big crash.

"Nobody saw this coming," said Michael Kormos, vice president of operations for PJM Interconnection, the mid-Atlantic regional power grid operator.

The call to PJM Interconnection came at about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 14 from American Electric Power Co., which said an Ohio transmission line overloaded, Kormos said.

But officials were unable to pinpoint the cause of the trouble before blackouts began rolling across the Northeast, he said, adding that before the line overloaded, PJM was having a routine day, with no abnormal demands and plenty of reserve capacity.

"We were fat, dumb and happy, for lack of a better word," said Kormos, who briefed PJM stakeholders in a public meeting on the Aug. 14 blackout events.

Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said at a conference here on wholesale power markets that the blackout has heightened concerns about integration issues involving grid operators like PJM and its Midwest counterpart.

FERC spokesman Bryan Lee said good coordination can help keep the lights on: "We see these large regional grid operators, particularly those with central dispatch authority, as an important contributor to grid reliability."

No conclusions

A joint U.S.-Canada task force is investigating the blackout, which cut power to 50 million people in eight Midwest and Northeast states and the province of Ontario, Canada, with electricity returning to most customers within a day.

No conclusions have been reached, but investigators are focusing on a power plant shutdown two hours before the blackout and transmission line overloads in Ohio on systems owned or partly owned by AEP and FirstEnergy Corp., of Akron, Ohio.

In another development, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the U.S. leader of the investigation, issued an order Thursday allowing the Long Island Power Authority to keep using a power cable running under the Long Island Sound from Connecticut to New York.

"It is my judgment that an emergency continues to exist," Abraham said.

The 24-mile cable between New Haven, Conn., and the shuttered Shoreham nuclear power plant was installed last year. It had been permitted to operate only with the consent of the energy secretary during emergencies because of environmental concerns.

PJM officials said it was too early to tell whether the outages on the mid-Atlantic power grid were attributable to equipment failure, or whether the grid simply is not designed to handle the dramatic fluctuations it experienced.

"There's going to be a lot of investigative work as to where it broke, why did it break there as opposed to someplace else," Kormos said. "Either there were missed operations, ... or it was something that was never designed for."

After learning of the AEP line overload at 3:30 p.m., PJM officials began a series of conversations with AEP, First Energy and the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, the power grid operator in the Mideast and PJM's counterpart, Kormos said.

At the same time, PJM officials were trying to determine whether the overload warranted a transmission line load relief -- known as a TLR -- in which adjustments are made across a grid to avoid further potential problems.

Such requests are a daily occurrence, but sometimes can be based on faulty data, Kormos said, and a check showed no unusual occurrences on PJM's own grid system.

While PJM officials were trying to determine whether to curtail transactions on the power grid, Kormos said the AEP line tripped -- or cut off from the grid.

At about 3:45 p.m., PJM learned from the Midwest operating group that another line had been lost in First Energy territory, setting off a new round of troubleshooting.

"As the calls were being made, the other lines started to trip out," Kormos said. "At that time, everybody was just trying to assess what was happening. Things were happening too rapidly to even have conversations.

"I don't see any immediate actions PJM could have taken," Kormos concluded.

The first indication of problems within PJM's own grid system occurred about 4:10 p.m., when a 500 megawatt generating unit went down, he said. Less than a minute later, the first line in the PJM grid tripped -- and the blackout peaked across the entire region.

PJM lost some 4,500 megawatts across its grid region, about 7 percent of the 61,200 megawatt load at the time.

The bulk of the PJM outage affected northern New Jersey, where about 1 million people lost power, with significant outages also around Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania.

PJM operates a power grid serving 25 million people in parts or all of Washington D.C., and more than half a dozen mid-Atlantic states, including Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

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