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Lightning Strike An Extremely Unlikely Cause Of Black Out

Aired August 14, 2003 - 20:36   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's see if we can get some more clarification of some of these conflicting reports that we've been hearing in the last few minutes now.
Joining us right now on the telephone is Michehl Gent, who is the president of the North American Electrical Reliability Council, which basically is the organization that runs the grid. He joins us now on the telephone.

Mr. Gent, can you tell us exactly what happened? Did a strike, was there a lightning strike on the north side of the border, in the U.S., or what?

MICHEHL GENT, PRESIDENT, NORTH AMERICAN ELECTRICAL RELIABILITY COUNCIL: I can't tell you what caused this, but I can agree with the New York Power Authority that that's -- a lightning strike is a virtual -- it's virtually impossible that that would be the cause of this.

We're looking at all aspects of this. It encompassed a complete circle around the Great Lakes, of course, including Canada. And when the lights are all back on, our teams will go into the field and take a look at the records and talk to people and try to figure out why this happened.

The system is supposed to be designed for this not to happen. This is the most complicated machine in the world, yet we have the most reliable electric system in the world, and largely because we operate to a uniform set of rules that are designed to prevent this from happening.

So either somebody violated the rules, or we don't have the right rules in place. And we -- we're going to find out.

HARRIS: Do you have any idea at this point where that violation may have occurred? If this is not supposed to have ever happened again, as we heard New York Governor George Pataki say earlier, this was not supposed to happen, and it did, can you say where the rule violation may have occurred?

GENT: Not yet, but we have some places to start.

HARRIS: And ultimately, who is responsible?

GENT: Yes, we will get to the bottom of this. We will know, and as the president said, the government will join us in this investigation, and all aspects of this will be considered and rectified.

HARRIS: Then tell us, then, what are your concerns right now? If you, in your heart, say that this should never have happened before, in your mind, you believe that there were enough fail-safes put in place, enough precautions taken to keep this sort of thing from happening, what are you concerned about? What do you think may have happened?

GENT: I don't know. I really don't know.

HARRIS: Will you be the one who makes the final determination? Is this your responsibility?

GENT: Yes, it is my responsibility. I will have at my call, though, the leading experts in the world to make this determination. So my technical expertise may be a little outdated, but I'll have people available that will be able to get to the bottom of this.

HARRIS: Can you give us an update right now on exactly the state right now of the entire system? Where do you think you have power right now, how soon do you think it will be up throughout the entire system?

GENT: Oh, when you talk to the individuals, the individuals, the officials, like the governor of New Jersey and people like that, you'll get a more up to date local estimate than I can give you.

But I can give you an overall perspective. We had lost customers to the tune of about 10 percent of the entire Eastern interconnection, which runs from east of the Rockies all the way to Florida and to Maine, into Canada.

A lot of that was restored quickly. And now, as you heard from the governor of New Jersey, the lights are coming back on in northern New Jersey. Somebody commented earlier about the lights coming on in New York. So it's being gradually restored.

The problem is that when these power plants, these 20-something power plants came offline as a result of shakeups on the system to protect the plants, we -- they get cold, and it takes time to bring them back up. Most of them are thermal plants, where you heat water, make steam, generate electricity.

So the ones that use natural gas can be back in an hour or so. The ones that burn coal, it takes four to eight hours, say. And in nuclear plants, it might take half a day, 12 hours or more, to bring them up.

So it's not just a matter of stamping them back into the system and having them generate a full load. This is a very complex and technical issue to brings these things up.

But we're up to the task, and it's all coming back up.

HARRIS: We understand that, and we are looking forward to see that the work get under way. But one question that comes to mind is, after you express such confidence in the system and confidence in the lines, if the lines were good, how was it that this cascade effect actually happened, and this power outage spread so fast?

GENT: The -- that's the open question. We need to determine that. It's not supposed to happen. It all happened in about nine seconds, the big -- it spread from wherever it started to this entire doughnut around the Great Lakes. So we'll just have to find out.

One of the problems is, of course, most of the people are now involved in restoration, and we don't want to take them away from that job to do an investigation.

HARRIS: Sure, I understand that. But I have to ask you something that we have heard expressed a number of times tonight from various experts that we've been talking to. And in fact, one of the people that we spoke to was former energy secretary Bill Richardson, who said that this sort of thing was bound to happen. He described the grid, the system, as a third world system in place here in the first world.

GENT: Oh, it's difficult to argue with that under the circumstances. However, I don't view this as the -- I view this as the finest system in the world. This -- it's unfortunate that this happened, but we have to investigate, find out what happened, and make sure it never happens again.

HARRIS: Well, we'll be watching, and we will be waiting to see what statement you do have to make about that process once the conduct your investigation. Michehl Gent, we thank you very much for your time. We know you're very busy this evening.


HARRIS: We'll let you get back to your work. Thank you very much.


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