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Lessons learned on '03 blackout, industry says

NEW YORK -- From the control room of New York state's electrical grid, dispatchers sitting in front of computer screens can for the first time monitor the flow of current as far away as Florida and the Midwest. In Ohio, where the nation's worst blackout began last August, officials have started sending out foot patrols in search of untrimmed trees that could fall on power lines.

In New England, which was barely affected by the massive outage that left 50 million people without electricity, power dispatchers have begun collecting more-detailed information about what is happening with the grid beyond the region's borders, rather than depending on other operators for alerts.

As the summer heats up and power operators prepare for the season's peak demand, efforts are intensifying across the country to prevent another widespread blackout. Electricity grid managers and utilities have been retraining control room operators and overhauling computer monitoring systems. Poor communication among regions, which left the Northeast in the dark about the impending blackout, has been rectified. In Ohio, helicopters have been buzzing overhead to get a look at transmission lines.

''We have set some aggressive goals to get a lot of this done prior to the summer peak season, but many of these changes will be ongoing," said Ellen Raines, spokeswoman for FirstEnergy Corp., the northeastern Ohio utility that has taken most of the blame for the outage last summer.

Electricity specialists in New England, New York, and the Midwest say they have enough power for the summer. More important, they say they have spent the winter and recent months taking steps to catch problems before they cascade across other parts of the country. Many of the measures are in response to an investigation by a US-Canadian task force that examined what went wrong last summer when eight states from Michigan to New York and parts of Canada went dark.

While specialists say there is no guarantee that another major blackout will not occur this year, many are optimistic that enough improvements have been made to prevent an outage as large as last summer's.

This spring, the task force, made up of US Department of Energy officials and their Canadian counterparts, released a report that faulted FirstEnergy and the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, or MISO, which oversees a large swath of the Midwest's power grid.

The task force criticized the utility for shoddy tree-trimming, which caused transmission lines in its territory to short-circuit, and cited inadequate computer monitoring that led to poor communication within the utility's control room and inside MISO -- allowing the outage to spread.

Starting at 4:10 p.m. EDT on Aug. 14, power plants across the Midwest and the East Coast began shutting down. The blackout disrupted road traffic, subways, and commuter rail lines in New York City, stranding thousands of people. Air traffic was disrupted because there was no power to operate metal detectors at security checkpoints. In New York alone, the blackout cost the city's economy $1 billion. Nationally, losses were estimated as high as $10 billion.

Despite optimism about improvements, some specialists said they are not sure enough has been done to prevent another widespread blackout.

''I am not entirely confident we can avoid last year," said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of New England's Independent System Operator. ''The issue becomes one of, are the [structural] systems in place in the Midwest to prevent a reoccurrence of last year and has the transmissions infrastructure seen enough investment? Some of the [structural] core issues that came out of the DOE report are still a work in progress."

Van Welie called for uniform, mandatory national reliability standards with penalties for noncompliance. Although US and Canadian officials who issued the report also agreed that the US power grid should be tightly regulated to prevent another outage, a proposal has stalled in Congress.

Carol Murphy, spokeswoman for the New York Independent System Operator, said the outage demonstrated how interconnected the grid is.

The agency has widened its computer system's view to see what is happening elsewhere, she said, and will not be dependent on other sources for alerts. Soon, Murphy added, dispatchers will be able to monitor activity as far away as the Rockies.

''The Midwest was having problems last year, and we didn't have a clue they were experiencing problems until the voltage surge hit us and hit Canada and other folks," she said.

Officials in New York and New England also said they are sharing more information about the condition of the power system with other grid operators through regular conference calls and e-mails.

Bill Phillips, president of operations at MISO, said his organization is completing a list of recommendations by the North American Electric Reliability Council, which sets operating standards for the grid. He said MISO, which monitors electric reliability along 97,000 miles of interconnected high-voltage transmission lines in 15 states and parts of Canada, has worked to improve everything from employee training to the way it communicates with other regions. One major improvement, he said, was the launch of a state estimator, a tool that allows engineers to evaluate the system by simulating the grid's response to hypothetical problems.

''Much has been done in the Midwest . . . I think it is much less likely that any kind of event could occur now compared to last year," Phillips said. ''Are there still things being done? Yes. The industry as a whole still has a great deal of effort to make in terms of revising and improving the standards by which the entities operate."

Hoff Stauffer, an analyst with Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said questions remain about how best to operate the grid. Still, he said, he thinks the industry has made major changes that will prevent such a widespread blackout.

''So many people have taken corrective measures, and people are not just going to be careless the way they might have been in the past," Stauffer said. ''It's likely to happen in the next 20 years when people get relaxed, but not soon."

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