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Big Blackout Could Have Been Averted Oregon Officials Didn’t Sound Alarm Soon Enough

Thu., Aug. 22, 1996

This month’s massive blackout in the West could have been avoided if officials in Oregon had simply notified California electric utilities when the first power line failed more than an hour and 40 minutes before the whole system went down, experts testified Wednesday.

They also revealed a host of additional problems - including poor communications, out-of-service power plants and a maze of conflicting federal agencies with piecemeal oversight of various elements of the power system - that might have made the blackout worse than it had to be.

Had utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison been alerted at the outset, they could have taken steps to avert the outage, according to a top PG&E; official testifying at an emergency meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

But operators of the Oregon transmission grid were not required to notify other utilities of potential problems when the first of five power lines sagged into a tree at 2:06 p.m. on Aug. 10, well before 4 million people in nine states were suddenly left powerless.

It wasn’t until 3:47 p.m., when a third power line tripped in Oregon, that operators made the call. By then, the shutdown of the entire system was only six minutes away.

“The magnitude of the problem wasn’t recognized until it was too late,” said E. James Macias, PG&E;’s general manager of electric transmission. The procedure has been changed so that operators now inform others about any such line failure.

The agency responsible for the Oregon transmission lines that triggered the outage is the federal Bonneville Power Administration, whose chief executive, Randy Hardy, testified:

“The issue is not the failure to follow procedures … but that maybe the procedures weren’t adequate to deal with the circumstances. We don’t know that yet.”

Many of the problems cited Wednesday concerned the power system in Oregon, where simultaneous line outages tripped generators and cut electricity on the main lines to California. While some of the problems have been corrected, others are still under review, utility executives, regulators and others told the utilities commission.

In the meantime, imports of cheap Pacific Northwest hydroelectric power to California have been cut back to 67 percent of capacity to reduce the load on a system that critics say had become seriously strained.

“The transmission grid is taxed to its maximum capabilities, and the margin of error has been cut way down,” said Nettie Hoge, head of the consumer group Toward Utility Rate Normalization. “As we rush toward cheaper power in whatever form we do it, we could be experiencing more of these outages.”

Testimony revealed a number of problems that combined to trigger the massive blackout:

About 20 percent of the power capacity along the Columbia River in Oregon, which could have been tapped to support voltage in remaining power lines as the line failures occurred, was not in service because maintenance was being performed, Hardy said. He added that such maintenance decisions are not made by the BPA. The plants are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, though it was unclear at the hearing who decides on maintenance.

At the same time, the key Dalles Dam power plant on the Columbia River was generating less power than usual because water was being diverted to accommodate the running of chinook salmon. That plant could also have bolstered voltage on the lines. The plant is subject to requirements of the Endangered Species Act as administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.



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