Topeka — Avoiding a major power blackout in Kansas ultimately could come down to whether utility employees believe they have the authority to deal with problems developing along electric transmission lines.
That sentiment emerged Friday from a meeting of about 50 legislators, state regulators and utility officials who gathered to discuss the largest blackout in U.S. history, which on Aug. 14 cut power to parts of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada and affected 50 million people in eight states.
Though Kansas is on the western edge of the massive Eastern power grid, its electricity users were not affected. The grid covers most of the United States and Canada east of the Rockies outside of Texas.
Participants in Friday's meetings said Kansas' system was reliable now but hashed over a series of issues, including when to tap into wind power, whether transmission issues must be resolved regionally and how to ensure that utility employees feel comfortable enough to "shed load" when they see a potential line overload.
"The operators have to know that they have the ability to make those tough decisions," said Carl Monroe, vice president of operations for the Southwest Power Pool, a regional group that oversees regional planning and transmission operations. "The authority line has to be clear."
And state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said a utility might find itself in a situation in which, "I've got somebody who's an hourly employee, particularly a new hire, whose supervisor is at home or has run to the store and hasn't taken a cell phone."
Last year, then-Gov. Bill Graves appointed a council to study energy issues, and that council in turn recently appointed a transmission task force to study the reliability of Kansas' electric grid, assess the state's power needs and make recommendations for ensuring the future flow of electricity.
The Kansas House Utilities Committee organized Friday's meeting, and Chairman Carl Dean Holmes, R-Liberal, said he was looking for "an interchange of ideas."
"I don't anticipate that there will be any legislation," he said.
One issue is the cost of improving transmission lines and generating stations -- and who pays. Lee Allison, chairman of the energy council, said cost came into play especially when people talked about Kansas tapping wind power to generate electricity, because utilities didn't yet see a way to get wind-generated power to market.
"We built a federal interstate highway system," Allison said. "Should we now be looking at building an interstate transmission system?"
But David Springe, chief attorney for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayers Board, said missing from the discussion was any assessment of the cost of improvements versus their ultimate benefits to consumers.
"It's always the residential and small-business customers who end up, at the end of the day, paying the bill," he said.
"When was the last time we had a cascading blackout?" Springe asked. "Our system is good and resilient."