FirstEnergy at Center of Massive Eastern Blackout

August 17, 2003 by Jeff Shepard

FirstEnergy Corp. (Akron, OH), the nation's fourth-largest investor-owned utility, is currently being investigated by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a nonprofit, industry-sponsored group that oversees power line reliability, as the possible source of the largest power outage in US history.

According to a preliminary analysis, FirstEnergy, which owns four of the first five lines that failed, was experiencing unusual "electric conditions" as much as four hours before the blackout hit Thursday, August 14, 2003, sweeping across eight states and parts of Canada. The company didn't consider shutting down lines before the blackout since it believed there was no reason to isolate it.

NERC is investigating the outage and has focused on the likelihood of a combination of mechanical glitches and human failures as it tries to piece together second-by-second events during the hours before the widespread blackout, focusing on power lines in northern Ohio. NERC has said the problem appeared to have cascaded after the breakdown in the three high-voltage lines south of Cleveland in the area serviced by utilities owned by FirstEnergy.

Investigators are "fairly certain" that the problem started in Ohio, said Michehl Gent, head of NERC. "We are now trying to determine why the situation was not brought under control."