Congress is likely to create mandatory standards for companies that transmit electric power and penalize those that fail to comply, President Bush said yesterday.
Proponents say mandatory "reliability standards" could help ease transmission problems and avert massive blackouts.
"Nothing is mandatory right now; we have a voluntary system," said Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council, a lead investigator into the blackout that cut power Thursday to about 50 million people in eight states and Canada.
A set of standards would help prevent inappropriate events on the power grid, the web of transmission lines that crisscrosses the nation, Vancko said.
"Unfortunately, we saw those [events] in the blackouts of last week," she said. "What we don't know right now is whether we have the right standards in place and someone didn't follow them, or whether we don't have all the standards needed to prevent this from happening."
Either way, the standards that cover common use of the grid by competing utilities and power operators are voluntary.
"It has been a gentleman's agreement for a long time," said Robert Michaels, a professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton.
The current system was developed before deregulation began in the electric power industry, when power plants were built to serve defined customer loads and transmission lines to serve those plants, experts said.
"The grid was not designed to support the kind of robust wholesale electric market we're trying to implement in the U.S. these days ... or to carry massive amounts of power from utilities in Maine to utilities in Virginia, and now that's what we're trying to do," Vancko said. "Now with competition, utilities have broken up and are seeking to compete and use the transmission system to buy and sell power and ... there are pressures to use the system beyond its capacity."
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday in Washington that NERC would work with a new U.S.-Canadian task force to investigate the breakdown. NERC has said the failure of three FirstEnergy Corp. power lines in Ohio probably triggered the blackout.
"Those lines did trip, and FirstEnergy is having problems, but what effect or what role that played in the blackout is what we have to determine," said Paul Kure, a staff engineer for operations and resources for the East Central Area Reliability Coordination Agreement, which plans and operates transmission lines of 29 electricity suppliers in nine east-central states.
"We have to find out from other member systems within ECAR whether or not other outages may have contributed to that, or whether [FirstEnergy's] outage contributed to something else. We don't know," he said.
Bush, speaking to reporters yesterday at his Texas ranch, said he spoke Monday with Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, two of Congress' leading players on energy issues. Bush said a conference committee to resolve differences in House and Senate energy bills should be "up and running" in about three weeks.
"One thing is for certain, they're very confident that they'll have a mandatory reliability standard in the energy bill," Bush said. "What that means is that companies transmitting energy will have to have strong reliability measures in place. Otherwise, there will be a consequence to them. There'll be incentives in the new bill that encourage investment in energy infrastructure."
Both bills call for the creation of an electric reliability organization that would be overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Opponents of reliability standards in the bill say more government intervention won't solve transmission problems.
"The question is, who's going to enforce it and how?" Michaels said. "My question is, how will things be enforced, and what will that do to the natural cooperation that has to take place" among power suppliers.
He acknowledged that "the purely voluntary North American reliability system seems to have more and more difficulty as markets grow up around it."
"The old system is much more dependent upon fraternization among utilities, and there are many more actors now," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.