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NERC Still In Dark Over Blackout Cause

The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), the organization responsible for keeping electricity flowing throughout the U.S. and Canada, said Friday morning it still does not know the cause of the largest blackout in U.S. history, but predicted the vast majority of utility customers would have power restored by the end of the day.

"There's all sorts of rumors swirling around and most of them are not even informed speculation," said Michael R. Gent, president and CEO of NERC.

Gent promised a prompt investigation into the matter and said the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Defense would be involved.

"If we designed a system to make sure this doesn't happen, then how did it happen?" Gent said. "I don't know. I don't want to speculate. We are looking at the sequence of events and the final verdict could be months away but we should have some preliminary data by next week."

Gent said neither weather or demand load was the cause of the blackout, which he characterized as "9-10 second event." He estimated that approximately 15 million utility customers were affected by the blackout.

He also said terrorism was not the cause.

"Physical terrorism -- breaking into plants and that sort of thing -- is easy to rule out. We have no evidence of that although that will be part of the ongoing investigation," Gent said. "As far as cyber intrusions, we've seen no evidence of that either. We keep extensive logs on the systems and people can cover who they are but not where they've been."

Once it was determined that the outage was not terrorist related, Washington's main efforts turned to helping state and local authorities to restore power.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham directed the New York and New England Independent System Operators (ISOs) to activate, if necessary, the Cross Sound Cable connecting Shoreham, Long Island and New Haven, Conn.

Abraham said activation of this 330 megawatt cable will help stabilize voltage between the two states and allow electricity to flow quickly when the generation system is operable, reducing the time needed for full restoration and reliable operation of the electric system.

Utility companies and federal officials on both ends of the cable were working Friday morning to test the system in anticipation of allowing New England and New York to draw power from each other.

Abraham said, "Electric service is being restored this morning, adding to power that was restored last night. Utility crews are working to restore the remaining service, to determine the cause of the outage and to take steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future."

The blackout also prompted House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R.-La.) to promise immediate hearings into the matter when Congress returns from its August recess.

Among those who will be invited to testify include Abraham, FERC Chairman Pat Wood, New York Gov. George Pataki, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. Earlier today, Chairman Tauzin directed committee investigators to begin collecting information pertaining to the blackouts.

"While deeply troubling, it is not especially surprising to me that there has been a failure of a major North American power grid," said Tauzin. "Yesterday's massive blackouts -- the worst in American history -- highlight the critical need for Congress to enact a comprehensive national energy bill this year. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer -- our economy and our way of life are at stake."