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Second Blackout in Idaho; Utilities Begin Postmortem on Western Outage

July 4, 1996

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ A Wyoming power plant may be to blame for blackouts that affected up to 2 million customers in eight Western states and knocked out power to southwestern Idaho for two days in a row.

Officials were focusing on an unexplained short-circuit in a transmission line from the Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs, Wyo.

The short-circuit may have caused the 90-minute power outage to 700,000 customers in the Boise and Nampa areas in Idaho on Wednesday, and triggered the rapid chain-reaction outages that knocked out lights and telephone service across the West the day before, officials said.

Utilities sent up a helicopter Wednesday to inspect 200 miles of transmission lines at the Jim Bridger plant, said Gary Donnelly, a spokesman for PacifiCorp. The utility owns the plant along with Idaho Power.

It could take a week to find out just what caused the short-circuit, officials said.

``We can rule out sabotage. We can rule out UFOs. I think we can rule out computer hackers,″ said Perry Gruber, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Ore., which operates a series of Northwest hydroelectric plants.

This much is clear: Sometime shortly before 2:30 p.m. MDT on Tuesday, a significant disturbance rippled through the Western power grid on a day of record heat.

Air conditioners whirred to a stop. Traffic lights went dark. Bells and buzzers on slot-machines in Reno, Nev., briefly fell silent.

If nothing else, the incident on the Bridger line was ``an initiating event,″ said Robert Dintelman, assistant executive director of the Western Systems Coordinating Council in Salt Lake City.

Dintelman said the coordinating council, which oversees electrical service reliability in 14 Western states, two Canadian provinces and part of northern Mexico, will conduct a ``postmortem″ on the outage.

``It’s a system error. Something has failed, but didn’t blow up,″ said Jan Packwood, Idaho Power’s vice president. ``The system is vast enough and complex enough that we may never pinpoint it.″