Anatomy of a Blackout A 124-page report, jointly issued by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Canadian government, attributes the August 14, 2003, power failure to a sequence of events at an Ohio utility, FirstEnergy Corporation, and the Midwest Independent Transmission Operator (MISO) charged with overseeing its operations. Describing the events leading to the blackout, a New York Times article spoke of layers of dysfunction and a comedy of errors.
At 12:15 p.m., a technician at MISO inadvertently turned
off a computer program that was supposed to monitor conditions on the
Midwest grid every five minutes. He went to lunch, and his mistake was
not noticed until almost two hours later. Around 3:05 p.m., three major
transmission lines short-circuited owing to FirstEnergys failure
to trim trees that were resting on the wires, a standard maintenance requirement.
A FirstEnergy computer crashed, preventing people from realizing that
several of the companys power plants and transmission lines had
shut down. With those lines out of commission, other electricity generators
in the state needed to quickly reduce their power output to keep from
overloading the grid, but they did not respond quickly enough. As a result,
the problem cascaded throughout the region,
The biggest power failure ever to strike North America, the U.S.-Canadian report found, was caused by deficiencies in specific practices, equipment, and human decisions that coincided on that fateful August afternoon. William Hogan, research director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, considers the document a careful analysis of the factors immediately responsible for the blackout. But it doesnt delve into broader, more generic issues like coordination shortcomings, communication breakdowns, and regulatory failures that were also responsible. In short, Hogan adds, They did a good job of explaining that, at 3:05 p.m., the patient was standing on the ledge of the building and hadnt fallen off yet. The question is, how did he get on that ledge in the first place? What underlying conditions made the situation so precarious, allowing events to unfold as they did? The task force didnt go into that. SN