DETROIT – A new U.S.-Canadian task force plans to find the source of last week's massive blackout and make sure it doesn't recur, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (search) said Wednesday.
In their first face-to-face talks since the blackout, Abraham and his Canadian counterpart Herb Dhaliwal (search) vowed to cooperate in the investigation into the crippling outages.
"One of the things that we hope is that we can learn from what happened," Abraham said of the joint task force. "Not just to make these recommendations ... but also to identify the kinds of challenges we're going to have in the future."
Following the hour-long meeting with Dhaliwal, Canada's minister of Natural Resources, Abraham declined to speculate on the cause of the outage that blacked out parts of eight states and Canada. Tens of millions of people were left without power in the worst blackout in U.S. history.
"The reliability of the system is paramount," said Dhaliwal. "Understanding the complex chain of events that led to the recent power outage is a challenging task."
Abraham stopped in Ohio earlier Wednesday to update state and utility officials. "It's important, obviously, that we withhold judgment until all the facts are in," he said in Columbus.
The task force, which met for the first time Wednesday in Detroit, Mich., the former Republican senator's home state, will get the facts right before assigning blame for the blackout that affected 50 million people, Abraham said.
Technicians from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (search) are also on the task force, which is expected to ask top researchers and industry analysts to figure out the cause of the blackout.
Most of New York state, southern Michigan, northern Ohio, southern Ontario and parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont were suddenly plunged into darkness Thursday afternoon. The blackout lasted less than a day in most places, but the city of Cleveland suffered the loss of water service.
"This blackout should not have occurred. We need mandatory rules for the grid and we need tough penalties for violators," said FERC commissioner William Massey.
New York's Public Service Commission said Wednesday it would conduct its own inquiry to find out why 89 percent of New York electricity customers lost power.
Officials close to the investigation had said an interim report could be released by mid-September, although a final report could be months away.
Experts said investigators might not find a single event that led to the blackout.
Grid operators were still gathering data Wednesday on what triggered the outage, focusing on a series of small high-current line failures that may have led to huge power fluctuations, which in turn caused a cascading effect as transformers and generators all over the region shut down to avoid damage.
Investigators so far have noticed four otherwise innocuous disturbances on Thursday morning and afternoon on the northeastern Ohio power grid owned by FirstEnergy Corp. (search)
They included unexplained voltage swings that the company said brought down a coal-fired generator, a pair of power line outages — one caused by a falling tree — and the failure of an automated warning system.
"In order to have a big problem, you have to have three or four bad things happen all at the same time," said Hoff Stauffer, a power-transmission consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates (search).
Usually, one individual glitch could not trigger power failure in any one city, and the grid is designed to work around one or two failures, but not more, Stauffer added.
Still, he and others wondered how intra-grid failures led to the spread of downed utility networks from FirstEnergy's lines around Cleveland into the neighboring utility networks that power Detroit, Toronto and New York City.
Other neighboring networks in the eastern North American grid — including those operated by PJM Interconnection and American Electric Power — did seal themselves off, keeping the lights on in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cincinnati.
"Why didn't Michigan separate itself from FirstEnergy, like PJM and AEP?" Stauffer asked. "If they'd have done that, Detroit would have been all right. Ontario would've been all right. And New York would've been all right."
As part of the investigation, the U.S-Canadian task force will look at FirstEnergy's computer logs. Most administrative tasks on electrical grids are operated by computers.
Akron-based FirstEnergy has been criticized for other power outages. Earlier this year, the Cleveland suburb of Solon lodged a complaint with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission over outages in May and June that were blamed on outdated equipment and inefficient tree-trimming.
City officials filed the complaint after three meetings between the utility and city council failed to end the outages, said David Kovass, an attorney representing Solon.
"We heard reports of tree branches falling on the lines," Kovass said. "They had surges and dimming. On Memorial Day weekend, they had power outages that would last four to five hours at a time."
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said that he expects full cooperation from FirstEnergy in federal and state investigations.
"I expect FirstEnergy to do everything in their power to assess the liability of their systems to identify the possible cause of the failure and work with federal and state authorities," Taft said after meeting with Abraham early Wednesday in Columbus.
Abraham said Wednesday that ultimately, the cost of paying for improvements will likely fall on energy consumers, who will be forced to pick up the tab for utility equipment upgrades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.