Feds settle on final 2011 Southwest blackout penalty

Friday, May 29, 2015

Over four years after a major 2011 power outage in Southern California and parts of the Southwest, federal energy regulators have approved the sixth and final settlement of penalties for violations of law and reliability standards

After the September 8, 2011 blackout left more than 5 million people in Southern California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico, without power for up to 12 hours, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began investigating what had happened.  After conducting that investigation jointly with electric reliability organization North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), in an April 2012 report FERC found that the outage started when a 500-kilovolt transmission line owned by utility Arizona Public Service Company tripped.

The FERC continued its investigation into the 2011 Southwest blackout after its staff report was made public.  It identified six entities believed to have been involved: Arizona Public Service Company, the California Independent System Operator, the Imperial Irrigation District, Southern California Edison, the Western Area Power Administration, and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council Reliability Coordinator.

FERC's enforcement process typically offers the accused an opportunity to agree to a stipulation of facts (for example, that the utility violated a particular reliability standard) and to pay a civil penalty and perform mitigation measures.  In its enforcement actions related to the 2011 Southwest blackout case, all six entities ultimately agreed to stipulations and penalties that were accepted by the Commission.

In July 2014, the FERC accepted Arizona Public Service's stipulation with NERC and FERC's Office of Enforcement, under which APS agreed to pay $3.25 million and improve its system reliability.  In August 2014, California's Imperial Irrigation District agreed to a $12 million fine.  Utility Southern California Edison agreed to a $650,000 fine in October.  In December, FERC settled with federal power marketing agency Western Area Power Administration with no penalty.  Grid operator California ISO agreed to pay $6 million.

This week the FERC announced a settlement with Western Electricity Coordinating Council.  WECC promotes grid reliability in the Western Interconnection, a broad area of the western United States.  According to the FERC order, FERC enforcement staff and NERC determined that WECC as the Reliability Coordinator violated nine requirements of the Interconnection Reliability Operations and Coordination (IRO) and the Facilities Design, Connection and Maintenance (FAC) groups of Reliability Standards.  Enforcement staff and NERC concluded that WECC failed to identify and prevent violations of system operating limits and Interconnection Reliability Operating Limits and was unaware of the impact of protection systems, and used an inadequate system operating limit methodology that exposed its area to cascading outages.

As a result, the settlement calls for WECC to pay a $16 million civil penalty.  $3 million of this will be split evenly between the U.S. Treasury and NERC, and $13 million will be invested in reliability enhancement measures that go above and beyond mitigation of the violations and the requirements of the Reliability Standards.  WECC and its successor as Reliability Coordinator, Peak Reliability, also agreed to mitigation and reliability activities and to submit to compliance monitoring.

FERC has described the WECC settlement as marking "final resolution" of the investigation by FERC Enforcement staff and NERC into the 2011 Southwest blackout.

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