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FirstEnergy and the August 2003 Blackout

The biggest power outage in North America occurred on August 14, 2003.

Why should Marylanders take another look at FirstEnergy’s role in that event?  In the first place, the blackout cascade originated from FirstEnergy’s Ohio territory and spread to neighboring states.   There’s also the fact that proponents of building massive new “coal-by-wire” transmission projects keep bringing up the August 2003 blackout.  This includes FirstEnergy’s proposed merger partner Allegheny Energy who wants to build the PATH power line in Maryland.

Coal-by-wire proponents raise the blackout danger in a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate public officials into approving their wasteful and unnecessary — though very profitable — projects.  If you examine the PATH application (Case 9223) before the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), then you will find numerous references to blackouts, including a specific reference to the August 2003 blackout on page 24 of the PATH-supplied testimony by PJM transmission planner McGlynn.  (McGlynn chairs the PJM Transmission Expansion Advisory Committee whose approval of PATH qualified it for FERC’s special 14.3 percent incentive rate of return.)

Unfortunately for PATH proponents, there is no evidence that the August 2003 blackout was caused by a lack of transmission capacity.  A recent report from the Congressional Research Service concluded:

as discussed in the official blackout report and other analyses, the 2003 blackout was not caused by a utility having built too few transmission lines, or because power line towers and substations were falling apart. The blackout was apparently due to such factors as malfunctioning if not obsolete computer and monitoring systems, human errors that compounded the equipment failures, mis-calibrated automatic protection systems on power plants, and FirstEnergy’s failure to adequately trim trees.  (p. 31, emphasis added.)

PATH proponents can’t resist exploiting the blackout talking point because the August 2003 was a big deal that impacted nearly 50 million Americans (and 10 million Canadians).  Michigan Governor Grantholm described the impact of the outage that spilled over from Ohio in Congressional testimony.  The Michigan Public Service Commission issued its own report on the disaster and had some rather unflattering things to say about FirstEnergy’s role.

In his Congressional testimony, FirstEnergy CEO Peter Burg listed several generators which were off-line on that fateful day:

FE units Davis Besse Unit 1 (880 MW), Sammis Unit 3 (180 MW), and Eastlake Unit 4 (240 MW) were off-line for maintenance outages.

This makes it sound as though the Davis Besse nuclear plant outage was routine whereas in actuality that plant was in the midst of a two-year outage caused by what may be the worst nuclear incident since Three Mile Island.

The Michigan report goes on to describe what happened:

…FirstEnergy’s Davis Besse nuclear plant had been out-of-service for some time. It appears that, with the Davis Besse nuclear plant off-line, the tripping of Eastlake Unit #5 was a major event in the northern Ohio region. FirstEnergy was left in a precarious position as far as meeting its load on that day. Power had to come from other sources in order to meet the requirements of the FirstEnergy system. (See page 18.)

All agree that coordination and management problems contributed to the crisis.  MISO is the Midwest Independent System Operator that supervises the transmission system in the Midwest:

According to the MISO telephone transcripts, MISO called First Energy at 3:43 p.m. and questioned FirstEnergy about the Hanna-Juniper line. The FirstEnergy operator was not able to respond to MISO’s questions and said that he didn’t know, that he would have to take a look. MISO requested that FirstEnergy call it back. At 4:04 p.m., FirstEnergy called MISO and stated that they had some problems. The FirstEnergy operator still seemed unsure about exactly what was happening. The operator lists a number of lines that are “off”, the Eastlake Plant unit that had gone off-line earlier in the day and the Perry plant that was “having a hard time maintaining voltage”. The FirstEnergy operator then asks MISO what it has going on. When MISO responds that FirstEnergy Hanna-Juniper line is open, the FirstEnergy operator questions that. MISO responds that it had discussed this with FirstEnergy earlier. The FirstEnergy operator states that they have “no clue” and the computer is “giving us fits.” A FirstEnergy control room operator told a MISO technician minutes before the blackout, “We don’t even know the status of some of the stuff around us.” (See page 19.)

Readers are encouraged to review the Final Report of U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force to better understand this complex event.

If the merger of FirstEnergy and Allegheny is consummated, then FirstEnergy will be operating transmission lines in Maryland.  Furthermore, they will be the owner of the proposed PATH power line.  The Maryland PSC certainly ought to take a close look at FirstEnergy’s role in the August 2003 blackout.

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