In August 2003 at about 4pm EST “parts of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada experienced widespread power blackouts, the US states of New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts were severely affected” (Lerner 7). Many nuclear power plants had to be shut down and air traffic was slowed down. It’s estimated that for the 2 days about 50 million people were left without power, 11died and approximately $6 billion was lost terms of revenues. Previous blackouts occurred in November 1965 and affected the areas between Toronto and New York.In July 1977 there was an outage in New York City. The August 1996 blackouts affected about 9 western US states. Power blackouts negatively affect many aspects of modern life directly or indirectly. This paper seeks to understand power blackouts: causes, effects and how their occurrence can be prevented in future with specific reference to the great northeast power blackout of 2003.
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Background information on blackouts
Electricity is used soon after generation since it cannot be stored for long thus “the load on any network must be matched by the supply to it and its ability to transmit that power” (Lerner 6). If an overload or underload is detected at the source or transmitting cables measures must be taken to shutdown the affected gadgets from the rest of the grid to prevent damages caused by the imbalance (Lerner 6).
Electric current causes a rise in power cables temperature thus become longer and often sag between their supports. There is a “minimum clearance height above the ground” (Hauben 5) below which heat can be transferred to objects close (such as trees) to the power cables resulting in a further increase in current being transmitted. The overload is corrected by automatic protective relays which shutdown the affected power lines from the main grid. The shift in current is taken care of by other transmission lines which are expected to have the extra capacity to carry the excess current, if not blackout occur as this cycle is repeated over a large area.
FirstEnergy Company was blamed for not trimming trees in Ohio. The power plant at Eastlake, Ohio was shutdown at a time when demand for electricity was high thus passing this extra current another power line which was later disconnected after coming into contact with the untrimmed tree. This cycle was repeated leading to about 100 power generating plants to be shutdown.
This outage was also blamed on a computer bug called race condition which ultimately corrupted energy management system. The bug affected the FirstEnergy alarm system such that the personnel at the control room could not detect any system malfunction. The primary server and the backup server were overwhelmed by the malfunction and eventually failed, operators’ computer screens refreshed slowly and hence could not take rapid actions.
Effects of the blackout
The power outage caused low water pressure as the pumps could not run without power; there were fears of possible water contamination. About 4 million people in Detroit were advised to boil their water up to four days after the blackout (Poulsen 7).
Mobile phones as a means of communication were disrupted since backup at cellular transmission sites could not be maintained for long, also because people could not recharge their phones. Landlines and cordless phone compensated well although in some places they were overwhelmed. Cable television and the internet could not work smoothly since either there was no power for the customer or the service provider (Poulsen 7).
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Many factories had to be closed; others were forced to slow down since they could not get supplies on time. In fact “at one point a 7-hour wait developed for trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor due to the lack of electronic border check systems” (Poulsen 7).
The task force investigating the outage recommended 96 reliability standards which can be summarized as 3t’s that is trees, training and tools. The personnel at the control rooms have to be trained on how to detect and correct any emergency occurrences in the grid. Trees growing under transmission lines have to be trimmed on a regular basis. The computer system managing the grid “must be able to survive a power line fault or any other single failure, no matter how severe” (Greeno 4). To balance the grid so that underloads are reduced electricity production has to keep up with consumer energy demands. In the long run building a smart grid that has the ability to monitor and repair itself “similar to the way air traffic control systems are used to coordinate aircraft routes” (Greeno 4).
This paper sought to understand power blackouts causes, effects and prevention measures. Blackouts are caused by an imbalance in supply of power in the grid. Blackout affects all the aspects of modern life since it depend on power supply. Prevention would be by better training, cutting trees near power lines and better monitoring of the grid through reliable computer systems.
Greeno, Cherri. “Blackout Northeast”. The Record.com.The Record. 2007.Web.
Hauben, Ronda. Why Was the Blackout So Widespread?.New York: Springer, 2005. Print.
Lerner, Eric. What’s Wrong With The Electric Grid?.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.
Poulsen, Kevin. “Software Bug Contributed to Blackout”. Securityfocus.com. Security focus. 2007.Web.