Some Tuesday blackouts were ordered to prevent a widespread outage

September 12, 2013
The Akron Beacon Journal
Jim Mackinnon

Most of Tuesday's electricity blackouts in Northeast Ohio came about when record-setting 90-degree temperatures combined with a broken high transmission line and as parts of the power grid were shut down for routine maintenance.

A multistate organization responsible for keeping the regional electrical grid running ordered utilities to institute small, localized blackouts in Ohio and other states to prevent more widespread outages.

The heat caused record demand for electricity and combined with local equipment problems to create emergency conditions in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to grid operator PJM Interconnection.

A part on a FirstEnergy Corp. 345-kilowatt transmission line broke on Tuesday afternoon, leading to a loss of power to about 15,000 customers, said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said.

The heat probably was not responsible for the break, Durbin said.

Power was restored to all customers affected by that line by about 8 p.m.

All told, about 53,000 Northeast Ohio customers lost power for at least part of Tuesday, with the widest outage in Ashtabula County.

Because FirstEnergy had other transmission lines out of service for routine maintenance, power could not be easily re-routed to ward off blackouts, Durbin said.

In addition, a substation in the Lordstown area overheated and had to be shut down to prevent damage.

The downed line, combined with high heat that triggered record electrical usage for this time of year, caused Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection to put into place contingencies to prevent more widespread outages, Durbin said.

PJM is an independent organization charged with keeping the electrical grid running properly for about 61 million people in 13 states as well as Washington, D.C. The organization describes itself as the "air traffic controllers of the power grid."

PJM ordered First Energy to take about 100 megawatts of power off-line about 5:30 p.m. in the Erie, Pa., area, Durbin said. That led to about 35,000 customers of FirstEnergy subsidiary Penelec to go without electricity until about midnight, when all service was restored, he said.

This is the time of year when FirstEnergy and other utilities typically power down transmission lines and plants for routine maintenance because expected cooler weather will reduce the need for electricity, Durbin and a PJM spokesman said.

But Tuesday's unusual high heat triggered higher electricity demand when people and businesses turned on air conditioners.

"We have folks look at [power grid] system conditions and do a whole lot of what-ifs," PJM spokesman Ray Dotter said.

PJM operators determined that if another transmission line in Northern Ohio went down on Tuesday for whatever reason, "it would cause an instantaneous, uncontrollable blackout in the local area," Dotter said.

So PJM ordered FirstEnergy to do a controlled blackout in part of its service territory in order to ward off a more widespread outage, he said.

Shutting off someone's electricity is absolutely the last resort, when no other options are available, he said.

"Do you affect a few people or a whole lot of people?" Dotter said. "You want to keep things under control."

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