WASHINGTON – Congress must act on energy legislation supported by the White House after the transmission failure that led to a blackout over a large part of the Northeast and Midwest, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (search ) said Sunday.
"The grid is old. It's aging. And the growth in electricity demand is tremendous, and we're not keeping up with it," Abraham told "Fox News Sunday."
Abraham argued that the Bush administration has been doing all it can to prevent the types of failures that resulted in the worst blackout in U.S. history.
"We've identified the corridors where we need more transmission," he said. "We've been working with the states to upgrade and improve the identification of new technology. We've invested more than 50 percent in our budget on research."
But Abraham said Congress must put incentives in place and establish transmission standards.
The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed. Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin (search) condemned the Senate for waiting too long to pass an energy bill that is now in a conference committee.
The bill includes "incentives to build new transmission facilities, and, additionally, the right of the federal government, when the states don't cooperate on locating those lines, to actually settle the dispute and locate right-of-ways for new transmission facilities," Tauzin said on ABC's "This Week."
On "Fox News Sunday," Abraham said the Bush administration supports a three-year delay in a controversial proposal that its supporters claim would make it easier to run the nation's electrical system.
Abraham said the proposal would "force down the throats" a federal policy of deregulation that states with cheap power oppose.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (search) proposal would establish national standards for managing the flow of electricity through regional transmission organizations. It also would establish some new rules on access to transmission lines.
Abraham said many states don't want the federal government telling them how to run their electrical systems.
"The [FERC] measure ... goes to the question of whether or not we would mandate and force down the throats of regional areas of the country a federal approach to deregulation of the marketplace," Abraham said.
A leading investigator says a failure to contain problems with three transmission lines in northern Ohio just south of Cleveland was the likely trigger of the blackout. But he said Sunday he still doesn't know why the blackout spread so widely.
"We have a problem here where we either have a bad design, or we have bad following the rules," Michehl Gent, head of the North American Electric Reliability Council, told ABC. "If there's a violation of the rules, we need to be allowed to enforce those rules."
Gent, whose group is paid for by industry, said his group is proposing that Congress create a body that would govern electricity transmission the way the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates stock markets.
On Saturday, FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron, Ohio-based utility that officials said owned at least two of the three broken lines, confirmed alarm systems were not working that might have alerted engineers to the failed lines.
It was not immediately clear whether that impeded efforts to isolate the local line disruptions, some of which occurred an hour before power system shutdowns cascaded Thursday from Michigan to New York City and into Canada.
Gent said the transmission system was designed to isolate such problems and suggested that human error might have been involved in not containing the situation.
"The system has been designed and rules have been created to prevent this escalation and cascading. It should have stopped," Gent said in a telephone conference call Saturday.
FirstEnergy was aware the alarm system was broken, said company spokesman Ralph DiNicola. A functioning backup alarm at the Midwest Independent System Operator, a nonprofit power pool that oversees the region's electrical grid, was in place, DiNicola said.
At the Midwest ISO, spokeswoman Mary Lynn Webster said she did not know when workers noticed the FirstEnergy lines were disabled and what, if anything, they did about it.
Webster said the pool copes with "thousands of alarms every minute," and that the failed lines weren't in areas most prone to problems.
A failure in the monitoring system could be devastating because it prevents operators from isolating failures before they spread, said Thomas Stuart, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toledo.
Abraham, co-chair of a U.S.-Canadian task force that will look into the cause of the blackout, said Saturday that the group is putting together investigative teams that will include experts from the government's research laboratories as well as private resources. In addition to determining the cause, the task force will recommend actions to prevent a repeat.
The task force hopes to complete an initial report within a month, the Canadian co-chairman said Saturday. "We want to move as quickly as possible," said Canada's Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal, a former an electric company official.
Gent did not identify specifically the three power line failures that became the focus of the NERC investigation. But other council officials said they were among five reported transmission failures in the Cleveland area leading up to the blackout peak Thursday afternoon.
The transmission system in northern Ohio is operated by FirstEnergy.
Among the things yet to be determined is the relationship between lines tripping in Ohio and the unusual power swings that were observed in lines leaving Michigan and going into Canada and then back again, according to investigators.
There are more than 10,000 pages of data, including automatically generated logs on power flows over transmission lines, that need to be closely examined, said Gent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.