Sunday, August 24, 2003


Managing the grid

Investigators into the Aug. 14 blackout are trying to sort out the sequence of abnormal power surges in Northern Ohio that fed the massive outage. Apart from human error or equipment failures at utilities such as Akron-based FirstEnergy, a central question is how did regional transmission operators (RTOs) perform? Did such entities that act like air traffic controllers for electric power grids help or make matters worse? Should they be given more authority or less?

Congress should get to the bottom of such questions, and Congress and the power industry need to find the right balance to assure safe, reliable electric power. It will be contentious. A divided Congress in September also must thrash out an energy bill.

Cinergy officials think the blackout never would have happened, had all power companies in the region been integrated into the same transmission pool, under a single authority. "It's better to have one operating entity looking at one region," Cinergy CEO Jim Rogers told The Enquirer editorial board. Not all regions agree. Columbus-based American Electric Power would rather belong to an RTO outside this region. Cinergy belongs to Midwest Independent System Operator, which is under heightened scrutiny since FirstEnergy also recently joined MISO. But FirstEnergy was not under MISO's full operational control, Cinergy says.

As FirstEnergy's troubles compounded on Aug. 14, AEP disconnected from FirstEnergy, sparing the lower half of Ohio, but instead overloads surged in other directions. Electric power can't be stored, so utilities constantly have to balance supply with demand, and safely re-route overloads so they don't damage systems. If operators or automatic circuit breakers fail to isolate problems, entire grids can be shut down.

Cinergy executives believe a big blackout is unlikely here, because the company is interconnected in all directions and belongs to MISO. Some argue all utilities in a region should be made to belong to the same RTO and say RTOs should be given federal eminent domain power to route more transmission lines. That deserves lengthy debate. But the size of the blackout showed we've yet to find the right balance in managing power flows across electric grids.

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