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Thursday, February 19, 2004 Last updated 12:35 p.m. PT

Power grid to be audited before summer


WASHINGTON -- Audits of the most critical areas of the nation's power grid will be completed by the end of June in hopes of avoiding the problems that caused last summer's blackout, the head of an industry group said Thursday.

The North American Electric Reliability Council also promised that the industry will better disclose violations of reliability standards by grid operators and take aggressive action to correct them.

"We must do everything we can within our power to regain public trust," Michehl Gent, president of the industry-sponsored council said in a conference call with reporters.

Gent said 20 audits will cover the centers where grid operators coordinate and control 80 percent of the power flowing through the system.

Some audits are under way. One that will begin soon is focusing on FirstEnergy's grid system in Ohio where investigators have concluded the problems began Aug. 14 that resulted in the blackout from Michigan to New York.

Gent and other council officials provided more details about how the agency plans to put in place 14 recommendations, which were made public last week, to improve reliability.

The greatest focus is on the kind of problems responsible for the outage that affected eight states and parts of Canada. They include failing to trim trees, poor communications and equipment failures.

A U.S.-Canadian task force, in an interim report, said in November the blackout should have been prevented. The review cited poor training, equipment failures, communication problems and violations of industry reliability standards.

David Hilt, vice president for compliance at the council, said Thursday that violations of reliability rules contributed to the blackout. He said the audits and new emphasis on compliance are aimed to avoid a recurrence.

The council will require faster reporting of violations of reliability rules by grid operators. The group, in a change, will report the violations to state or federal regulators if they are not promptly corrected.

More than six months after the blackout, Congress has yet to enact government-enforced, mandatory grid reliability rules and penalties.

Gent acknowledged that the council, which for years has been responsible for setting voluntary standards and monitoring compliance, still must rely on peer pressure to force compliance.

He warned as the memory of the blackout fades, the issue of grid reliability may get less attention. "Eventually we're going to have to have legislation or this will backslide," he said.

An energy bill before Congress would empower the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose engineers will participate in the industry audits, to enforce grid reliability rules and to hand down punishments. But the bill has run into trouble over other issues.

In December, FERC Chairman Pat Wood said he may have agency engineers conduct reliability audits of the grid and promised closer monitoring of transmission systems even without congressional action.

The electricity industry said such a move would be considered illegal and reaffirmed its position that the council should retain its lead role on reliability standards.


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North American Electric Reliability Council: www.nerc.co