Size of Florida outage may spark probe by federal energy agency

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

The federal government wants to know why the failure of a single switch in a substation west of Miami led to a power outage that rolled across the state Tuesday afternoon and cut off electricity for more than 2 million people.

An official at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Wednesday that his agency was considering taking an active role in an examination of the blackout because a small-scale malfunction usually doesn't have such far-reaching effects.

"When you have any incident that knocks off 2.5 million people, it obviously grabs your attention," said Joe McClelland, director of the Washington-based agency's office of electric reliability.

The commission probably will decide by the end of the week whether it will assign its own investigators to work with the nonprofit Florida Reliability Coordinating Council to analyze the power failure, which started at a Florida Power & Light Co. substation and affected 1.2 million homes and businesses.

Depending on what the agencies find, the analysis could lead to a formal investigation and fines of up to $1 million per violation.

FPL said Wednesday that it was continuing an in-house study of the outage, which apparently was triggered by a switch failure that caused a fire at the substation. The malfunction, just after 1 p.m. Tuesday, knocked five of FPL's power generating units, including two nuclear reactors, off line and caused the state's electrical grid to lose 4,000 megawatts of generation, about 7 percent of its capacity, according to the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council.

One unit at FPL's Martin County plant in Indiantown was among those tripped off line. It restarted Tuesday evening.

"We are taking this investigation very seriously," FPL spokeswoman Sarah Marmion said Wednesday. "We're doing everything we can."

To restore power more quickly Tuesday, FPL made the most extensive use ever of its 20-year-old "on call" program, which powers down air-conditioning units and other appliances for customers who are enrolled.

About 765,000 customers get a monthly credit for participating in the voluntary program. By 8 p.m. Tuesday all of their appliances had been powered up again.

"In situations such as what we experienced, it was invaluable to the utility to be able to restore the power that much more quickly," Marmion said.

Both nuclear reactors at FPL's Turkey Point facility in Miami-Dade County remained on standby Wednesday and were not producing power. They were automatically shut down Tuesday when their sensors detected a disruption in the grid.

As a matter of policy, FPL does not say when nuclear reactors resume full power, said April Schilpp, nuclear power spokeswoman for FPL, which was using the opportunity to do maintenance on the two units.

The nuclear reactors are two of five in the state and together produce enough electricity for about 850,000 customers. Marmion said the utility had reserve capacity to handle customers' needs until the reactors are back on line, even if Wednesday's cold front led to higher demand.

No customers experienced residual effects of the blackout Wednesday, Marmion said, adding that any power disruptions were likely a result of bad weather.

The Tampa-based Florida Reliability Coordinating Council, which ensures power reliability in Florida, is assembling an "event analysis" team of five to 10 experts to evaluate how Tuesday's outage started and whether the system operated correctly in its aftermath, said Sarah Rogers, the council's president and chief executive officer.

Rogers said she hoped the team would start work later this week. "It probably will take several months," she said of the analysis.

If the council determines that reliability standards were violated, it has the ability to recommend a fine of up to $1 million per violation for FPL. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the final say on the fine.

The maximum amount "would be for the most egregious of violations," the commission's McClelland said, such as obstruction of an investigation. In less severe cases, non-monetary penalties may be recommended.

In all, there are about 90 federal reliability rules that cover everything from cyber-security standards to communication and coordination during times of emergency, McClelland said. Some, such as vegetation maintenance and cyber-security, probably can be ruled out in this case, he said.

The commission usually takes an appellate role in such cases — meaning it can reject the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council's recommendation if it doesn't agree with it — but it's considering launching a concurrent analysis because of the scope of Tuesday's outage, McClelland said.

On the surface, Rogers said, it appeared the restoration of power went as it should have Tuesday.

"If you think about similar incidents elsewhere in the country, they lasted days, not hours, and the utilities clearly coordinated amongst themselves to ensure this was not any worse than it was," Rogers said.

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