While it remains unclear what exactly caused last month’s unprecedented blackout in the U.S. and Canada, a wide-ranging group of stakeholders last week said that if Congress is serious about preventing a similar catastrophe from happening again, federal lawmakers must make currently voluntary reliability standards mandatory for the power industry.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday and Thursday held an exhaustive set of hearings examining the crippling wave of power outages that hit eight states and eastern Canada on Aug. 14.

While none of the witnesses could say beyond a shadow of a doubt what triggered the historic blackout, several representatives from electric utilities and power grid operators, along with governors and state utility regulators, said that the current set up of voluntary reliability rules needs to be scrapped.

Leading the charge for a shift to mandatory reliability rules is Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), the organization that oversees the current voluntary set of standards.

Gent noted at the hearings that NERC and a broad coalition of industry, government, and customer groups have been supporting legislation that would authorize creation of an industry-led self-regulatory organization, subject to oversight by FERC within the U.S., to set and enforce reliability rules for the bulk power system.

The comprehensive energy bills that have passed both the House and the Senate have versions of that reliability legislation.

“Voluntary standards have been proven inadequate,” said Bob Taft, governor of Ohio. “Responsibility for enforcement of rigorous national standards for the safe and reliable transmission of electricity should be given either to a federal agency or state commissions operating to enforce federal standards.” He noted that with respect to rail lines and natural gas pipelines, there is already precedent for state enforcement of national safety and reliability standards in Ohio and other states.

Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said that Congress should move to immediately pass a stand-alone bill that would provide enforceable reliability standards for the country’s transmission system. She said that this could mean giving more “regulatory teeth” to either NERC or FERC.

However, the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday defeated a procedural motion by Democrats to instruct conferees to strip out the electric transmission reliability provisions of the comprehensive energy bill and place them in a separate, stand-alone bill. The proposal had been pushed by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI).

Some version of the reliability provisions included in energy bills passed by the House and Senate could emerge from the House-Senate conference committee meeting this month to reconcile the two measures.

A move toward mandatory electric reliability rules for the U.S. also received the endorsement of several of the country’s electrical grid operators at last week’s hearings.

Gordon van Welie, ISO New England’s president, called for uniform, mandatory national reliability standards and operating procedures that are enforceable with penalties for non-compliance.

“We believe that the reliability standards set by the NERC, which are now voluntary, should be mandatory,” added William Museler, CEO of the New York Independent System Operator.

Similarly, James Torgerson, CEO of the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO), said that “widespread adherence to strong reliability standards” will be crucial to preventing a recurrence of power outages.

“If Congress must do any one thing immediately, it must address the issue of system reliability,” said Alan Schriber, chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission. “While the states have the authority from their legislatures to set and enforce rules for distribution systems, the federal government must confer power upon someone to do the same for the transmission system,” he said.

Whether it be NERC or FERC, “the rules of the road must be mandatory,” Schriber said. “Once in place, the enforcement of the rules can follow the course taken by other federal agencies.”

Meanwhile, the possibility that transmission line operators were stymied in their efforts to communicate with each other on the day of blackout became a key focus of attention on the first day of the hearings. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said that a joint U.S.-Canadian task force examining the blackout will look at whether communications difficulties contributed to the outages.

“These things happen very fast and yet humans are in various roles that are critical to the process and people can’t move as fast as these events can develop,” said Abraham on Wednesday.

“We’re talking about 10,000 events or so in nine seconds,” Abraham said. “No human being has the ability to be that responsive to take every action, maybe, in terms of communication and notification in that sort of time frame.” The Energy Secretary, therefore, said that once the investigators have collected all the relevant information on the blackout, they will examine “whether communication problems were a factor.”

Taft and Granholm both voiced concerns at the hearing over apparent communications-related issues that cropped up on the day of the series of outages.

“After the blackout, a transmission system [official] in a neighboring state said that his company should have received a courtesy call from an Ohio utility in regards to lines going out in Ohio,” noted Taft. “Quite frankly, in the 21st Century, a system that relies on courtesy calls is clearly outdated and needs to be modernized.”

Akron, OH-based FirstEnergy, which owns seven utilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has come under increasing scrutiny after three of its transmission lines and one line it jointly owns with American Electric Power in northern Ohio tripped out of service prior to the outages.

“I do believe there may be an aspect of human error involved related to communications or lack thereof and I agree with Governor Taft that we shouldn’t have to rely on courtesy calls,” said Granholm. “We should have a system that is reliable enough that you don’t have to rely on a courtesy call, but in this case there, of course, was no courtesy call nor was there a system in place.”

Granholm said that neither Michigan-based International Transmission Co. nor Detroit Edison Co. “received any indication prior to the blackout, although it’s been traced to about an hour and five minutes prior to the time that in Michigan the transmission company found that there was a problem.” She said that “if our utilities had the ability to identify that a problem was occurring through the regional transmission organization or some other entity during that previous hour, then this problem of cascading might have been prevented.”

On Thursday, Rep. James Greenwood (R-PA) questioned FirstEnergy CEO Peter Burg on whether alarm bells apparently raised by power plant operators in the early stages of the blackout were properly registered with computers at a FirstEnergy system control center (SCC) that day.

“The information that I have is that there were massive voltage swings in the 345 kilovolt system and operators from the field were calling into your SCC, reporting these problems,” said Greenwood.

The lawmaker said that officials at the SCC were apparently “looking at their computer screens and the computer screens were not reflecting these problems in the field.” Greenwood asked Burg to comment on the possibility that the SCC employees “were tending to believe their computer screens instead of what the guys were calling in and telling them who were sitting in the power plants.”

The FirstEnergy CEO said that “there’s no question” that the company experienced problems with computers at its SCC on the day of the blackout, noting that the company has previously acknowledged such a situation. “We know that the manual alarm system was not working,” Burg noted at a later point.

“We want to know as much as you do about what was on that screen and what was not,” Burg noted. “The screens were not black. The screens were on. The question is whether or not they were updating themselves as they should have been doing during that sequence,” Burg told Greenwood.

“It seems to me that the problem with your computers was a lot bigger than the alarms just not functioning,” Greenwood told Burg. The lawmaker said that it appears that FirstEnergy’s computer system and central control center were “not reflecting the reality out with your reactors and your system and the guys out in the system were calling into the control center and saying, ‘We’ve got big problems out here,’ and the guys in the control center were saying, ‘Well, we don’t see it.'”

Burg noted that FirstEnergy officials were in communication with MISO and that the company didn’t “see any changes on our system until the very end in terms voltage flow, megawatts coming in.”

Even in hindsight, Burg said that “our system was relatively stable until the very end.” He said that had FirstEnergy system operators had “perfect knowledge” at that point in time, “I don’t know that they would have done anything differently than what was done.”

The House Committee last week also issued a 600 page-plus transcript of conversations that occurred on Aug. 14 between FirstEnergy officials and MISO. “We have no clue. Our computer is giving us fits too. We don’t even know the status of some of the stuff around us,” a FirstEnergy operator is quoted as saying in the transcript.

Torgerson confirmed that MISO has released to investigators transcripts of phone conversations it had with control area operators and other grid managers on Aug. 14.

“We’ve provided the transcripts to investigating authorities in the spirit of complete cooperation, and we’re pleased that they are now part of the record,” he said. “We believe the transcripts will show that MISO adhered to all appropriate NERC guidelines regarding communications with utilities and other grid managers prior to the power outages.”

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