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Outage probe looks to single power line in Ohio

Industry expert: Lines in that region have had trouble before

Cleveland stands dark Thursday, except for emergency lights in a courthouse, left. Most power has been restored in the city.
Cleveland stands dark Thursday, except for emergency lights in a courthouse, left. Most power has been restored in the city.

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(CNN) -- The power industry's watchdog council turned Friday toward a series of transmission lines known as the "Lake Erie loop" as it sought the source of the power outage that affected parts of eight states and Canada.

Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said that though the cause remains unknown, initial evidence points to the loop that encircles Erie, from New York to Detroit, Michigan, and through Canada.

"We have some indications that the first transmission lines that were tripped were in the Midwest," he said on a telephone conference call with journalists. "We're not sure what that means. We're not absolutely sure that's where it happened, and we won't be sure for the next couple of days."

But, he added, "that's the center of focus."

Later Friday, Gent told CNN it appears that the first known problem was the loss of a power line in Cleveland, Ohio, at 3:06 p.m. Thursday. The loss of the power line could be an early link in a chain of events that led to the blackout, he said.

An examination of power logs as well as timelines of various sequences helped Gent's staff trace the blackout back to the loss of that 345,000 volt line

Gent said it is not known why that line went down, and his staff is still looking at what happened during the next hour.

The blackout began spreading in New England, the upper Midwest and parts of Canada just after 4:10 p.m., taking down 21 power plants in the next three minutes, according to Genscape, which monitors power transmissions in the United States.

Gent said NERC should have more answers by Monday.

The power line in Cleveland is one of 50 in the Lake Erie loop.

The loop of transmission lines has "been a problem for years, and there have been all sorts of plans to make this a more reliable thing, with cables under the lake and such, but nothing has come to fruition," Gent said.

Gent said power on the northern side of the lake was flowing from west to east just before the incident, and "as it unfolded, the power reversed itself" and nearly doubled.

"There was a big swing back and forth on the north of the lake," he said. "The whole loop had this oscillating power phenomenon that ... was essentially a nine-second event."

From that initial incident, he said, the blackout cascaded off the loop and spread before the electrical system "did what it was supposed to do" and stopped it.

NERC does not consider terrorism or cyberterrorism possible causes.

"Physical terrorism is fairly easy to rule out," he said. "There's no evidence of a blowup, or somebody breaking in."

As for cyberterrorism, "it's virtually impossible to get in without leaving some tracks," he said. "They can cover their tracks as far as who they are but they cannot cover their tracks about where they've been."

As for what the "nine-second event" might have been, Gent said, the investigation would uncover it.

"There are two possibilities," he said. "Either the rules that we have are inadequate and need to be changed to accommodate this unknown event, or somebody wasn't following the rules."

NERC's rules voluntary

NERC's rules, however, are voluntary, and the council has no enforcement abilities. Gent said he has been advocating mandatory rules for about five years, to no avail.

"There's a bill before Congress ... we had hoped that would have been passed by now," he said. "This would have allowed us to enforce the rules."

He added, "We've been increasingly concerned that economic concerns of other pressures will sort of force people to not follow the rules or to extend in some way that limits their ability to follow them."

Gent said that one of the areas investigators will look at closely is a change that took place when the power industry was deregulated.

"When the industry deregulated," he said, "it separated the owners of transmission lines and the owners of generation plants. We no longer have transmission lines built to accommodate generation systems.

"When they separated, generators started building plants at convenient locations ... without considering how transmission lines in that area would accommodate them," he said. "We have more than adequate generation for the United States and Canada but we don't have an adequate transmission system."

Gent said NERC's current efforts focus on restoration; a thorough investigation will follow.

"If we've designed a system for this not to happen, how can it happen?" he said. "Assuming we can conduct a proper investigation, then we will turn to preventing this from ever happening again."

The electrical industry created the council in 1965 after 30 million people in seven states and two Canadian provinces lost power in what became known as "The Great Blackout." It is charged with designing systems to prevent such outages.

Gent said he was personally "embarrassed" by the widespread blackout.

"My job is to see that this doesn't happen," he said. "You could say that I failed in my job. That's why I'm upset."

Transmission officials say system worked

Officials from PJM, a regional transmission organization, confirmed Friday that as the cascade started flowing through the system at 4:10:48 p.m. EDT Thursday, the system's internal controls kicked in and prevented the problem from spreading.

Within a fraction of a second, Erie, Pennsylvania, and in the northeast corner of New Jersey experienced a disruption of power that saved the rest of the grid.

The affected region's network was stable within one minute, and no other areas were hit by the blackout.

"We are really pleased that our system functions the way it was supposed to and that it isolated the problem and stopped the outages from spreading," said Ray Dottard, a spokesman for PJM in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Dottard compared the cascading power outages to falling dominoes. Mechanisms built into the system stop the lines from failing, the equivalent of taking two dominoes out of a series, leaving the dominoes behind the gap standing. The missing dominoes will still cause problems, but the ones still standing will be spared.

The Erie loop, said PJM spokesman Michael Bryson, begins and ends in Buffalo, New York. It travels west to Cleveland and Detroit, then circles around the lake into Canada before crossing back into the United States.

PJM also has control of transmission lines in all of or part of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to its Web site.

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