The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a massive power outage that occurred throughout parts of the northeastern United States and Ontario on Thursday, August 14, 2003.
I looked outside my window and saw people in the park talking and trying to figure out what was going on. About a half hour later I took my flashlight, and walked down the 6 flights of stairs to mingle with the people in the lobby of my apartment building, those on the street, and others trying to keep cool in the park. Back in the lobby, where the building staff was hanging out, I met my neighbors, who live just across the hall, Julie, Jim and their baby daughter, Grace. I ate dinner with Jim and Julie on their terrace and relaxed in the breeze that had taken hold.
Just before dark, I went home, left the hall light in the ON position, opened my bedroom window, spoke to family and friends who live out of state and were concerned, then fell asleep with little effort. On a remote view, I saw the next terrorist attack being in Michigan with terrorists coming in from Canada during the blackout. Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data.
A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: The North American electric grid is not one bad day away from the kind of catastrophic failures we saw in India this week. We don’t know yet what, exactly, caused the Indian blackouts, but there are several key differences between their grid and our grid.
The issue is something that grid experts call situational awareness—basically, the big picture. In 2003, it took about 30 seconds for data about what was happening on the grid to be gathered, compiled, analyzed, and displayed in a way that grid controllers could use. If we’d had a phasor network in 2003, grid controllers would have had that hour warning about the problem. If we want the grid to work as well three decades from now as it does today, we need to put some money into it. Learn about how the grid works and what grid controllers do by reading a free chapter from my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Admit it — you’ve probably been sleeping on that same ratty, old, broken-down, ready-for-the-dump mattress that you’ve been crashing on for years. On the upside, being in Toronto during that blackout was one of the most surreal and wonderful experiences of my life. Shame I had to walk most of the way home since the streets were jammed, it was amazing how many people volunteered to be impromptu traffic wardens.
Of course, the UK has a number of things in its favour A small, compact island means that generation is never too far from supply.
In my experience in Canada (living in two reasonably big cities with what I assume are fairly modern grids), 90 minutes of power outage a year is probably a reasonable guess.
Growing up in Massachusetts, we had a blackout pretty much every afternoon in the summer, when the thunderstorm broke. That sounds pretty fast, until you consider the fact that electrons move at close to the speed of light.
Electrons move through wires slower than most people walk.  What moves at the speed of light is changes in the electric field.
Also a physics guy, not an electrical engineer, but from what I understand neither the drift velocity nor the instantaneous velocity is relevant, just the changes in the electric field. But it seems to me that for the purposes of her article, the salient point is how quickly the effects of a disturbance at point A are transmitted to point B.
In that scenario, the movement of actual electrons isn’t nearly as important as the change in electrical potential. That said, it does seem that the article’s wording clearly discusses the actual velocity of electrons. While most of the Northeastern US lost power in the 2003 blackout, our home (located in Northeast Ohio) never lost power. It’s frustrating to me how all of this infrastructure is invisible and only handled by experts far away from me.
If appliances could be controlled through the same wire that powers them, we could evolve a more robust way of prioritizing power demands. Domestic infrastructure including the grids, bridges, locks and dams, roads, public schools, public transportation, are all suffering under the impossible weight of our military budget. In 2003, I was working in an old garment factory building that had been converted into an open, spacious office environment. More time passed, and we got a few phone calls and slowly pieced together that the entire eastern seaboard was down.
That said, syncrophasors are cool, you used to be able to go on the Schweitzer (SEL – big proponent of syncrophasors) website and see the various grids (East, West, ERCOT) spin around a bit out of sync with each other. Hey Maggie- I appreciate all of these articles on energy- incredibly important info for us all.
A decade ago today, more than 50 million people lost power during the great Northeast Blackout of 2003. Power outages cost the economy between $18 and $33 billion a year, according to a recent report from the Department of Energy. Obviously, power outages are unpredictable by nature and "we'll never be able to eliminate [blackouts] entirely," Jay Apt, a former NASA astronaut and physicist and director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, told Reuters. This week, the Obama administration called for an increase in spending to upgrade the nation's electrical grid as we face the "increasing incidence of severe weather." The Department of Energy report doesn't mention any numbers, but experts estimate the cost somewhere in the hundreds of billions. People walk out of downtown Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge on August 14, 2003 in New York City. Thousands of New Yorkers walk along the Brooklyn Bridge away from Manhattan August 14, 2003 in New York City. Pedestrians and traffic leaving downtown Manhattan crossing the Queensboro Bridge after the onset of the largest power blackout in American history, August 14, 2003. New Yorkers sleep and wait for their train August 15, 2003 at Grand Central Station in New York, New York. Brooklyn residents eat by candlelight August 14, 2003 in a Brooklyn restaurant during the power outage. The Manhattan skyline is dark as the sun comes up on the morning after the massive power failure caused the largest power outage in the nation's history.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Northeast blackout of 2003, the largest power outage in North American history. According to a new report released by the Department of Energy this month [PDF], there were 679 widespread (affecting at least 50,000 people) power outages due to severe weather between 2003 and 2012. And yet, despite a burst of construction of transmission lines in the past five years, the grid is aging faster than we can rebuild it. Particularly where extreme weather adaptations are concerned, power companies have (evidently) failed to keep up.
When the power goes out next time, your city may be ready, even if your energy company wasn’t.


Although not affecting as many people as the later 2003 Italy blackout, it was the largest blackout in North American history.
I heard stories people trapped in stalled trains, walking through the tunnel system, coming up through manhole covers in the street. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. I’ve heard a lot of people speculating on this, but the folks who know the grid say that, while such a huge blackout is theoretically possible, it is also extremely unlikely. Even on a good day, there’s not enough electricity for all the people who want it, said Jeff Dagle, an engineer with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Advanced Power and Energy Systems research group.
It’s not a line, it’s a loop—power plants connected to customers and back to power plants again.
That sounds pretty fast, until you consider the fact that changes on the grid happen much, much faster***. There’s a good chance they’d have been able to fix it, or, at least, make the resulting blackout smaller and more localized. It led utilities and the government to team up to install a true phasor network throughout the United States. The average substation transformer is 42 years old—two years older than the designed lifespan of a substation transformer.
So are new national rules Gellings told me about, which put a much higher penalty on utility companies that don’t keep their trees trimmed.
The improvements would also make our grid more energy efficient, which he says could save an additional $20 billion annually in energy costs. But after a 42-year-old man in New Jersey had a seizure at work, some very smart emergency room doctors used data they saw on his Fitbit Charge HR to decide on the best way to treat him. Discounting ways that end with you behind bars, here’s some friendly advice: become an expert in a field everyone knows is important, but that very few fully understand. We scavenged wood from alleyways and cooked chicken in the parking lot behind our building.
India’s grid is sub-divided into Northern, North Eastern, Eastern, Western and Southern grids.
A grid that was designed as a single entity, back in the days when power was nationalised.and an absolutely insane amount of peaking capacity, put in place because of the regular stress tests run on the system as the entire nation puts the kettle on during ad breaks.
For example, in a copper wire of cross-section 0.5 mm2, carrying a current of 5 A, the drift velocity of the electrons is on the order of a millimetre per second. This is not directly relevant to electricity transmission; the only part relevant to that is the change in the electric field. Instantaneous velocity is not relevant to the speed at which electrons actually, physically move through wires; drift velocity is. That may not be what Maggie meant to discuss, but surely from a pedantic point of view (and pedantry in science is highly useful) your original comment was accurate. With air traffic control we have some idea at least what it might be like, but no one has made a movie yet AFAIK about power balancing. The notion that 20 billion a year is impossible to attain for the corrections and improvements needed in the grid is directly tied to the political reality that until military spending is drastically reduced any and all major domestic infrastructure overhauls are fiscally impossible. Against America eventually having the kind of electrical grid problems that post-war Iraq experienced?
This means that the switch actually flipped a relay by the breaker box, and the relay could handle the current necessary to run the lights.
By that time, it was pretty clear that the blackout wasn’t caused by smacking a relay on the wall. I saw someone just last night taking pictures of a sunset where the foreground mountains were 30 miles away – with his on-camera flash blasting away.
They had neighbouring operating centres telling them that their data was wrong, based on load flows, but they didn’t believe them. The stimulus (aka the Recovery Act) is a key part of why any major improvements are happening on the grid at all. An aging electrical grid, a series of technology flaws and a few overgrown trees led to a cascading series of outages stretching from New York City to Ohio and up into Ontario, Canada.
That number can shoot upwards of $75 billion during years with extreme weather events, such as 2012's Superstorm Sandy.
We salvaged a tub of ice cream on the roof, hitched a ride home with strangers, directed traffic at a darkened intersection, and so on. More than 12 hours after the biggest North American power outage in history left huge swaths of the Northeast in sweltering darkness, much of New York and its suburbs were still without electricity. For those in the affected area, recollections have been supplanted by disaster stories of Superstorm Sandy, and then some. The cost of these incidents has been calculated to be anywhere between $18 and $70 billion per year.
The National Energy Policy Act, passed in 2005, has successfully compartmentalized grid malfunctions. We haven’t approached the rates of line construction that characterized the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Even if another enormous regional blackout is unlikely, low-lying transformers and aerial power lines leave grid-dependent population centers vulnerable. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike have inspired coastal cities to revise disaster preparations. It affected an estimated 10 million people in the province of Ontario (about one-third of the population of Canada), and 40 million people in eight U.S.
By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future.
As Clark Gellings, a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute put it, “An engineer will never say never,” but you should definitely not assume anything resembling an imminent threat at that scale. First Energy, the conglomerate that owned both the broken generator and the failed alarm system, had also been lax on trimming trees near their power lines. If nearby trees aren’t trimmed, the lines can slump too close to the branches—which creates a short circuit. Partly, that had to do with the faulty software program that wasn’t turned back on and the alarm system failure that apparently went unnoticed. If a power plant goes offline in Arizona, it can create a measurable effect in Canada in about a second. Also known as PMUs, they’re just anonymous little boxes that sit on server racks in electrical substations.
For the most part, our grid hasn’t been modernized—it’s largely mechanical equipment operating a digital world, Clark Gellings said.
In the future, we’re going to have more electricity production happening in the rural Midwest, where wind resources are most abundant, but the people will still live far away.


Just like the national grid is really a patchwork of grids, it’s also a patchwork of regulatory systems. More power plants are actually in the East where the coal is abundant and a few along the major rivers, higher up in the Himalayas. The odd thing is that our block of homes oftentimes does lose power every now and again while the rest of our neighbors do not. We are a nation of citizens held to the narrow confines of goals inherent in our ( their ) military-industrial complex . My desk was in a cluster of four, along with my boss and two coworkers on my team, and our cluster was right next to the fuse box. The subways were not running and many residents had no water because their electric pumps were not working. This reduces the chance of another "domino effect" like the one that took place a decade ago, when a glitch in an Ohio alarm system shut down the power for 55 million people. Seventy percent of transmission lines and transformers, according to the report, are now over a quarter-century old. So we can talk about serious problems with the North American grid—but that doesn’t mean that you should be stocking up on home generators and canned peas in preparation for an India-like event. The electricity has to move at a constant speed (an analogy for what the engineers call frequency) and it has to flow at a constant depth (analogous to voltage). In the case of the Eastern part of the continent, all of the management districts are aggregated into a larger joint district. That uncoordinated mixture of regulation and de-regulation often fails to incentivize the investments the grid actually needs.
These include a militarized domestic police force, a vast domestic intelligence gathering operation, Northcom and so much more; all to the tune of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Except that, in practice, it’s half that, because more than half of our electrical consumption is commercial and industrial. 60V potential between the grounds of different circuits, things like that, but mostly if you just plugged something in, it worked. And when bad weather bears down, cities have adopted a "better safe than sorry" approach, shutting down basic services as a cautionary measure. Our system has rules that prevent us from dipping into our electric reserves on a day-to-day basis. In order to maintain that constant speed and constant depth, you have to also maintain an almost perfect balance between supply and demand … everywhere, at all times. The systems in place to tell grid controllers what the electrons were doing moved a lot more slowly than the electrons themselves. After the 2003 blackout, grid experts went back and essentially replayed the whole thing in a computer modeling program. They see what’s happening on the line—how well supply and demand are balanced, whether voltage and frequency are stable and within the normal range. To write about and discuss energy and infrastructure and domestic funding without at least a mention of our nascent police state and overextended military foreign policy is to in effect discuss the details of the broken table that the dead elephant is laying on without mentioning the elephant. Other achievements include the requirement that power companies trim trees around lines, and a bevy of other, more technical regulations.
So when one generator goes out, the electricity it was supplying has to come from someplace else.
The more lines you lose, the more likely it is that the remaining lines will, themselves, droop into something.
The idea was to try to get a better idea of where things went wrong and how a similar event could be prevented in the future. Over the last five years a partnership between federal Recovery Act funds and private industry dollars has invested $7.8 billion in upgrading the grid, Massoud Amin said.
Jeff Dagle told me that improvements are being made, but they might not be moving fast enough if there’s a major change in energy use—for instance, if Americans start buying electric cars at higher rates than they do today. Many of those states aren’t going to get a direct benefit from the line, even if that’s what’s best on the whole. Science is political because the goals of scientific institutions are primarily guided by funding and profit for corporations over the needs of civility and humanity.  I dont think its the responsibility of scientist to make complex political statements in connection to their practice but given the starkness of the economic priorities of today, taking note of the imbalance is stating basic and objective facts. Like a stream flowing into a new channel, the load will shift from one group of transmission lines to another.
The more lines that short, the more power plants have to shut down to protect themselves from fluctuations in frequency and voltage.
They found that, about an hour before the blackout, the grid was showing signs of stress that controllers didn’t see at the time, said Carl Imhoff, manager of the Energy and Environment Sector at PNNL. Local regulators may understand that, but when they have to operate in the best interests of their state or county, they might still challenge the line, Gellings said.
This is where the truth becomes unspeakable if you want published and you want accolades without being marginalized as controversial. Verizon trucks and other emergency vehicles were seen and heard everywhere, yet there was a calmness in the energies. The more times you have to shift load around, the more the grid starts to get away from you. It can show you, for instance, if the stability of the grid is changing as electricity moves from Cleveland to Columbus.
This is part of why it can take as long as 12 years to get a single new transmission line built. Obviously, there would be other issues if the country were to shift like that, but my point is, is the basic theory sound? In 2003, six transmission lines went down in a row, several of them major channels for the flow of electricity. In another example, de-regulation in many states has created a confused system where there are now lots of stakeholders in the electric grid, but nobody has an incentive to think about, or invest in, the long term. Depending on what part of the United States you live in, the grid averages 90-214 minutes of blackout time per customer, per year*. Today, our grid can give controllers information about the big picture in less than 10 seconds. And that’s not even counting the blackouts that happen because of extreme weather or other disasters, like fires. Researchers like Massoud Amin are working on getting that response time down to fewer than 3 seconds.
Integrating such sources requires adapting a system that is finely tuned to balance the amount of electricity being used with the amount of electricity being generated with fickle winds. Swanson Getting animated about the smart gridWhether we want it or not, the "smart grid" is on its way. David Biello reports February 12, 2009 What If the Smart Grid Isn't So Smart?New analyses show that equipping consumers with real-time information about electricity prices could crash the grid.



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