What's wrong with the grid?

If misery loves company, U.S. residents impatient to get their hurricane-zapped power back should have booked trips to Italy last weekend.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 1, 2003

If misery loves company, U.S. residents impatient to get their hurricane-zapped power back should have booked trips to Italy last weekend.

Nearly all of Italy lost power Sept. 28. Hundreds of people had to be rescued from elevators, tens of thousands of rail passengers were stranded, and millions of people were left in the dark.

The cause? A tree. One tree uprooted by a wind gust that hit a Swiss transmission line taking power into Italy. That caused over-capacity on the French lines into Italy, resulting in a domino-like collapse.

Italy is back online now but at least 10,000 people are still without power in the U.S. following Isabel.

Short of making unconstructive comments at line workers who are putting in long hours, there is little residents can do.

Anger is fueled further because the post-Isabel outages follow by less than two months the largest blackout in U.S. history.

That has left thousands of Americans asking: what's wrong with the grid?

In Italy, the answer might be simple as a tree. In the U.S., the answer is more complex than an un-translated epic Italian opera. It involves billions of dollars, political finger-pointing, task forces, and a top utility executive who told federal energy officials they should put "someone in charge" of the grid.

'Moaning and groaning'

Elizabeth Moler, executive vice president of Commonwealth Edison Co., thinks the question "what's wrong with the grid?" translates to: "who's in charge?"

Testifying before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Moler told FERC officials they must create a single system or regional transmission organization to control electricity flows in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic.

Moler said she went over telephone transcripts from utility controllers and heard "moaning and groaning'' over who had enough authority to make the utility companies follow any orders they might have given to redirect power flows to prevent the unprecedented failures that took place.

"We need to have someone in charge,'' she said.

Meanwhile power companies are concerned about the costs of forming such a common electricity market.

Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection, for example, already oversees parts of American Electric Power Corp. and Dayton Power & Light.

But AEP estimates that adding its affiliate companies into the PJM system will cost $50 million per year.

Normal people outside the loop of complex power finances have a simple concern will it cost more to turn on a light switch? Or if rates stay the same, will outages last longer and occur more frequently?

Big power bucks

Will the grid get a makeover? Private equity firms are betting it will.

This month, Connecticut-based First Reserve Corp. agreed to invest as much as $200 million in newly formed Minneapolis-based TRANSLink Management Development Corp. which will operate and, in some cases, lease or buy utilities' transmission lines.

In another deal, New York's Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Trimaran Capital Partners agreed to invest up to $200 million to support Ann Arbor, Mich.-based ITC Holding Corp.'s buildout of a new major power grid project known as the Conjunction Empire Connection.

What's this mean? The grid even if it stays poorly managed might, at least, be physically improved.

TRANSLink, in addition to operating transmission systems, plans to work with utilities and other organizations to develop new transmission infrastructure projects.

And the Conjunction Empire Connection, led by Conjunction LLC, an Albany, N.Y.-based cable installer, will bring 130 new underground electric transmission lines capable of carrying 2,300 megawatts of power from upstate New York, New England and Canada to New York City.

The 'glitches' uncovered

A joint U.S.-Canadian task force is still investigating the cause more accurately, causes of the blackout. Even the preliminary findings indicate tracing the causes could take a long time and may never be clear.

Ohio's section of the regional power grid alone had at least 64 glitches in the four hours before the blackout, according to a report submitted to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and to the task force by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Most glitches involved power plants and major transmission lines that tripped off momentarily or went down completely.

Ohio is a focal point because American and Canadian investigators are looking at key failures of a power plant and lines owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. that may have started the domino effect.

The U.S. Department of Energy is scheduled to release a preliminary report on the cause of the blackout in mid-October, with a report expected by the end of the year.

Meanwhile on a smaller scale but perhaps a more immediate comfort to those recovering from Isabel the Maryland Public Service Commission announced it is starting its own investigation into utility response to Isabel and to power losses from a series of August thunderstorms.

Pepco executives are also jumping on the "let's investigate" bandwagon. Pepco announced today it has hired James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is widely credited for turning around the troubled agency.

Witt, now a crisis management consultant, will be assessing the company's response to Hurricane Isabel. Some Pepco customers in Washington, D.C. and Maryland went without power for more than 10 days after Isabel struck.

Virginia power companies might need Witt's expertise as well. In parts of hard-hit Virginia, sustained outages are resulting in a failure of sewage pumping stations. Sewage systems in Hampton, Suffolk and York County seem to be faring the worst, contaminating more homes and yards every day.

Grid envy?

Meanwhile China, frequently plagued by blackouts, got tired of tracing glitches and has set up the world's largest electricity grid to improve efficiency.

A connection between grids in the northern and central part of the country has linked up power plants with a combined installed capacity of 140,000 megawatts.

The government plans to create a national power grid by 2010.

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