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Trees root cause in U.S., Canadian blackout

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham holds a copy of the report during a news conference Wednesday.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham holds a copy of the report during a news conference Wednesday.

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Power Outage
FirstEnergy Corporation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Shoddy tree-trimming around major power lines by Ohio utility FirstEnergy Corp. led to the failure of three key transmission lines and was the root cause of August's massive power outage, U.S. and Canadian blackout investigators said on Wednesday.

Industry experts say this is not the first time that trees have caused problems, pointing to widespread West Coast outages in August 1996 triggered by one offending tree that took out the entire grid. Big utilities typically spend millions of dollars each year to clear away tree limbs that can pull down key transmission lines during ice storms or high winds.

The joint government task force said the unprecedented August 14 and August 15 power outage which cascaded through eight U.S. states and part of Canada began with something as simple as improper tree-trimming by FirstEnergy.

"The blackout was initiated when three high-voltage transmission lines operated by FirstEnergy short-circuited and went out of service when they came in contact with trees that were too close to the lines," U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.

FirstEnergy failed to conduct "vegetation management," a euphemism for chopping away overgrown limbs and brush around its high-voltage transmission wires.

FirstEnergy was aware of the problem, the report said. Aerial inspections it conducted on its lines in 2001 and 2002 showed "significant numbers of trees and brush that needed clearing or trimming" along many transmission lines, it said.

Industry critics have cited deregulation of the nation's power industry for cost-cutting by utilities to boost profits. The maintenance, or tree-trimming, budget is often a target.

"It's one of the things that can get moved around in a budget," said Clark Gellings, a power grid expert with the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded group based in California.

"Your boss tells you to cut 10 percent from this year's budget because things aren't looking very good, and so you look around and say, well maybe we'll delay this," Gellings said, describing industry-wide utility practices.

Trees are a vexing subject for utilities due to landowner concerns, Gellings said. Utilities are caught between the need to keep trees away from their wires, and landowners' desire to preserve prized tree specimens.

FirstEnergy said in a statement that the task force report "falls far short" of addressing all the factors that contributed to the blackout. The company did not comment on its tree-trimming practices.

In 1996, high power demand caused a high-voltage wire in the Pacific Intertie -- the backbone of the Western grid -- to sag onto a tree in Oregon, which triggered patchwork outages from Canada to the Mexico border.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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