Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Fix what failed

Blackout: Investigate causes

The electricity is back on in cities blacked out by Thursday's massive power failure across 9,300 square miles, but no one should be fooled into thinking the problem is fixed. Experts don't even agree yet on what caused it or how much needs fixing.

Economic losses from the cascading power failure already are estimated in the billions of dollars. That big a hit to the U.S. economy will not be forgotten by businesses or terrorists. This one wasn't deliberate, but a massive blackout could pose a national security threat. Congress should see that power transmission grids are secured against future disruptions, accidental or deliberate. Congress will be tempted to act fast, try to exploit the issue politically or let upgrades slide once the story drops off front pages. We need to first find out what caused the blackout, make sure we fix the right thing, and not let Congress' pet projects sidetrack reform.

The push for reliable power is already being sucked into the rancorous debate over oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Sunday warned that modernizing electric transmission grids will cost consumers up to $50 billion in higher electric bills. With that kind of sticker shock, we need to be very sure we aren't fixing things that didn't fail.

Much went right last Thursday. The power failure in northern Ohio and southern Michigan was safely isolated from grids in the rest of Ohio, and never got to our region to require Cinergy to take any action. Shutdowns in other states prevented serious damage that might have taken months to repair.

Much blame for starting the blackout has been aimed at Akron-based utility FirstEnergy Corp., the nation's fourth largest publicly owned electric conglomerate. FirstEnergy officials admitted a nonworking alarm system didn't alert operators about power line failures, but they claim that grids outside their territory showed signs of "instability" hours earlier. Northeast utility officials complained by the time the nine-second "shock wave" hit their systems, it was too late to keep the huge power swings from shutting down entire grids.

It may take weeks to identify the sequence that led to the Aug. 14 blackout, and to learn which alarms, automatic circuit breakers or operators failed. Critics warned for years that utilities in different regions apply different reliability standards. They have called for uniform federal standards and expanded transmission grids to handle the growth in long-distance energy trading. But nimbies ("not in my backyard") have fought new transmission towers and the electric rate increases to pay for them. We need to learn from what worked and fix what failed.

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