Ohio Utility Transcripts Show Confusion an Hour Before Blackout

During the hour before the nation's worst blackout (search), engineers in the control center of an Ohio utility struggled to figure out why transmission lines were failing and complained that a computer breakdown was making it difficult, transcripts of telephone communications released Wednesday show.

At one point, an engineer at the Midwest grid managing organization asked engineers at the Ohio utility, FirstEnergy Corp. (search), to explain why they had not responded to a line outage reported sometime earlier and asked that they find out what was going on.

"We have no clue. Our computer is giving us fits, too," replied a FirstEnergy technician identified as Jerry Snickey. "We don't even know the status of some of the stuff (power fluctuations) around us."

A short time later, a technician at the (search), the group that monitors the Midwest power grid, expressed frustration with FirstEnergy's failure to diagnose the problems erupting in their power system.

"I called you guys like 10 minutes ago, and I thought you were figuring out what was going on there," the MISO technician, identified as Don Hunter, complained, according to the transcripts.

"Well, we're trying to," replied Snickey. "Our computer is not happy. It's not cooperating either."

The exchanges were contained in 650 pages of transcripts of telephone communications provided by MISO to House Energy and Commerce Committee investigators and made public by the committee Wednesday at the conclusion of the first day of hearings into the blackout.

Executives of FirstEnergy as well as other Midwest utilities and Midwest transmission grid managers were scheduled to testify before the committee on Thursday.

Separately, the head of an industry-sponsored power grid reliability watchdog disclosed that last year the industry had 444 transmission operating violations nationwide, including some -- involving failure to keep a balance of power generation and demand -- that had a potential of causing a cascading system failure.

Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said in a letter to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., that it was "premature" to say whether the type of violations reported in 2002 might have played a role in the Aug. 14 blackout. Compliance with NERC's rules is voluntary and carry no penalties. But Gent wrote the infractions carried a total of $9 million in "simulated penalties."

Although investigators have said previously that power line failures in Ohio were the first indication of an electricity grid problem on the afternoon of the blackout, the transcripts for the first time revealed the confusion in the FirstEnergy control center in Ohio as the utility's engineers sought to get a handle on what was becoming a growing and mysterious power problem.

According to previous timelines made public, the first sign of a problem developed when FirstEnergy's power plant in Eastlake, Ohio, tripped off around 2 p.m. EDT on Aug. 14; next, at 3:06 p.m., one of its transmission lines failed and at 3:32 p.m. another high-voltage line, known as Hanna-Juniper, went dark.

That caught the attention of the MISO engineers monitoring the grid from their control center.

"I was wondering what's going on there," Hunter asked the FirstEnergy control center shortly after 3:43 p.m. EDT. The FirstEnergy engineers were unsure, but Hunter knew something was amiss.

"I've got to get my calculator," he said.

"We've got something going on," a FirstEnergy technician identified only as Schwartz, replied. "I'm going to have to take a look and see what's happening."

FirstEnergy grid problems have been at the center of the investigation into what might have triggered the blackout. Investigations have said they are fairly certain the first significant power system problems surfaced with the transmission lines in FirstEnergy's service area in northern Ohio.

However, the Akron, Ohio-based company has insisted that there was significant power voltage fluctuations throughout the Midwest transmission system on the afternoon of Aug. 14.

In a letter to House investigators, H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy's chairman and chief executive officer, dismissed the notion that a single event, originating in his company's power lines, triggered the blackout that investigators say cascaded from Ohio into Michigan and Canada and down New York state, leaving millions of people in the dark.

"The events of the day ... involved thousands of separate and discrete incidents across a widespread multisystem region," Burg wrote.

House committee spokesman Ken Johnson said that while the transcripts showed confusion among FirstEnergy's grid operators, "the confusion ... was not isolated to FirstEnergy. Clearly other companies were also experiencing" problems understanding what was occurring in the power system that afternoon.

Earlier, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told the House panel that it was too early to make conclusions about what precisely caused the blackout.

"We won't jump to conclusions. Our investigation will be thorough and objective," he said. Abraham said he and his Canadian counterpart, Herb Dhaliwal, had agreed "to a narrowly focused investigation to determine precisely what happened ... (and) why the blackout was not contained."

In a second phase of the investigation, Abraham said, the group will make recommendations on "what should be done to prevent the same thing from happening again."