NEW YORK (AP) – Teams of engineers, mathematicians and computer specialists have started to comb through hundreds of millions of pieces of data in an effort to reconstruct the largest blackout in U.S. history.
Blending the techniques of plane crash probe and laboratory experiment, the investigation could produce a detailed timeline of the calamity by the end of next week, say officials with the little-known regional power groups at the forefront of the investigation.
“We’re going to be looking at as fine a slice of a second as we can to see how this shockwave, if you will, from another system came in and we couldn’t stop it,” said Stephen Allen, spokesman for the Northeast Power Coordinating Council.
“Within the next seven to 10 days there will be a very accurate timeline, almost second-by-second, that will be put out.”
Investigators said Saturday that they had isolated the cause to the failure of three massive transmission lines in northern Ohio. They have just begun to reconstruct a second-by-second account of how the failure cascaded through the multistate power grid, knocking out hundreds of power plants and thousands of miles of cables.
The association of Northeast and Canadian power companies and its nine counterparts were formed to ensure electric reliability after the massive blackout that darkened the Northeast in 1965. Until Thursday afternoon, they focused on the minutiae of frequency, reserve capacity and the other arcane but essential elements of the smooth functioning of the nation’s interconnected power grids.
Now the Northeast Power Coordinating Council and the Mid-Atlantic Area Council, which oversees parts of five states and Washington, D.C., are each assembling teams of fewer than 10 staff members and outside experts whose work could help answer a question essential to the nation’s economic security: How did it happen?
The answer may lie in the ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the national power grid – an intricacy that almost certainly will complicate the investigation.
“Not even the best computer can see the whole system and see all the weak points,” said Phillip Schewe, a physicist preparing a book on the 1965 blackout. “Complicated, massively connected systems like this are always moving toward a critical state.”
There are also councils for the Rust Belt and Midwest areas affected by the blackout.
The regional councils will feed their results to the North American Electric Reliability Council, the umbrella group overseeing national power reliability. Its chairman, Michehl Gent, said Saturday that investigators were examining tens of thousands of pages of data.
“What happened where resides on the computers of a whole bunch of companies,” said Ellen Vancko, spokesman for the national council. “The real analysis is going to be hugely complex and detailed.”
Concurrent state, congressional and a U.S.-Canada joint inquiry are expected to rely heavily on the industry’s information-gathering.
The U.S.-Canadian task force hopes to complete an initial report within a month, the Canadian co-chairman said Saturday.
Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal, who will lead the task force with U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, said it will investigate the source of the outage and how to avoid similar blackouts in the future.
“We want to move as quickly as possible,” said Dhaliwal, a former official in an electric company who said he spoke Friday with Abraham and plans to meet him on Wednesday in Detroit to work out details of the panel’s work.
Dhaliwal said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the blackout.
The chairman of the regional reliability groups’ umbrella organization said Saturday the blackout happened so quickly that some crucial moments may not have been recorded. Specialists from the councils affected by this week’s blackout were starting to gather data Saturday from sensors mounted in metering boxes, circuit breakers and nearly every other component of the electrical power grid.
Voice recorders in control rooms at state- and region-wide system operators are expected to give investigators a window into the human decision-making behind the crisis.
“An airline has a black box. In this case we have literally hundreds of those,” Allen said.
The councils are expected to consult a national center that monitors lightning strikes, in order to see if one affected the system.
Investigators will feed the collected information into powerful computers that will repeatedly reproduce the hours of the blackout, testing the information against various hypotheses of what happened.
“We can take a computer console and actually have them portray the system as it existed at three o’clock Thursday afternoon and walk through minute-by-minute how the data changed and events unfolded,” said Bob Hinkel, general manager of the Mid-Atlantic Area Council.