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Distance helped Minnesota from joining the East in the dark

Minneapolis, Minn. — (AP) - While the Northeast went black, the lights stayed on in Minnesota in part because it was too far away and a damage control mechanism worked by isolating the massive blackout that swept from New York to Detroit. Minnesota, like every state east of the Rocky Mountains except Texas, is part of a vast power grid called the Eastern Interconnection.

The Northeastern power failure created a surge of electrical voltage that rippled across that grid in seconds, growing less intense with distance so that by the time it reached Minnesota it was merely a tremble, industry experts say.

The eastern power grid had been stabilized by Thursday evening, said the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, the Indianapolis company that manages the power grid in 15 states for Xcel Energy and other firms.

In fact, Xcel Energy spokesman Ed Legge said there were less than 1,000 scattered outages throughout the Twin Cities area Thursday, which is actually less than usual.

Experts said chances of a similar blackout in Minnesota are remote.

"Yes, it could happen, but I wouldn't think it's as likely as this one," said Bruce Wollenberg, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Electric Energy. "The closest large electrical load center is Chicago-Milwaukee, and we're not nearly as tightly interconnected with them as the cities that are affected by this thing are."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was among those sweating it out in New York City after a power grid failure blacked out a broad portion of the U.S. Northeast. Pawlenty was in New York for a meeting of the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation, a position he was appointed to by President George W. Bush. On a conference call to reporters, he described the scene on Governor's Island, about one-eighth of a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan.

"There was some initial concern; at least some question about what this was," the governor said. "Basically, it appears like just a massive power outage."

Pawlenty said he was on a cell phone when the signal faded. Moments later, he noticed plumes of smoke rising from Con Edison power plants in Brooklyn and on the New Jersey Shore. Electricity was cut off, and airplane traffic in the city's three airports ceased.

Pawlenty, traveling with one staffer and two state Highway Patrolmen, said they searched for a while before finding a live telephone line. He said he contacted Minnesota public safety officials to ensure there was no risk to the state.

"It's all under control. Other than being hot, it doesn't present any safety concerns to us," he said.

Despite the confusion, Pawlenty said New Yorkers seemed relatively calm and civil. Their main concern at the time was getting home after the subway system shut down.

Pawlenty said he'd be able to walk through the crowded streets to his hotel in the city's Financial District, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to get into his room, which was protected by an electronic keycard lock.

"At a minimum, I can throw on my running clothes and maybe go for a run," Pawlenty said.

"If I can't use the hotel, I may have to just improvise. The good news is it's 90 degrees. If we have to sleep outside, at least it'll be warm," he joked.

The governor was scheduled to return to Minnesota on Friday, but he wasn't sure if planes would be cleared to leave by then.

"Everything depends on what happens with the power and the flights. We have to scramble and see what time we can come back," he said.

Pawlenty had planned to host his radio show Friday from New York, but he said that might not be possible if the power outage remains unresolved.

The governor said he was eager to get back to Minnesota, but he wasn't sure if it would be possible before the National Governor's Association meeting he's scheduled to attend in Indianapolis on Sunday.

Back in Minnesota, Northwest Airlines spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the power outage affected flights into and out of several cities, including Albany N.Y.; Cleveland; Detroit; Hartford, Conn.; Lansing, Mich; and Toronto.

"We've had flight cancelations, delays and diversions," he said. "With no power, it severely limits the operation, so an airport can be technically open but without power. It's very difficult for us to operate."

Northwest is encouraging passengers bound for cities affected by the blackout to postpone their travel, Ebenhoch said the travelers will be able to rebook for flights leaving later in the weekend without a penalty fee.

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