Milestones of Innovation 11: Blackouts and the Safety of the Grid

Opinion

While we party upstairs in our micro-age of whirling electrons and dancing apps, there’s some rumbling down in the basement. In a new book called Lights Out, the television journalist Ted Koppel has been reminding us to be very worried about the reliability of one of the central innovations of modernity. He’s talking about our little-understood electricity grids, including the one that spreads from Ontario to Florida, and from Maine out to the middle of Nebraska.

Koppel’s book, focusing on the dangers of an attack on the grid by cyber-hackers—he argues that we have no real plan to prevent it or recover from it—is timely. Fifty years ago, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1965, the American northeast learned frighteningly how much we depend on something very macro: the silently evolving electricity grids that have become more and more important to us since we began to depend on them in 1890s.

Just as people were heading home from work on a cool, mercifully moonlit evening, switches that had been set wrong near Niagara Falls operated inappropriately and sent power surging the wrong way in the network of power lines that blanketed Ontario, New York, and New England. Twenty-three million customers were plunged into darkness that lasted hours.

It was scary. Two hundred airliners headed toward New York’s airports suddenly didn’t have runway lights to assist their landing, and had to be re-routed. Hospitals began struggling to mobilize emergency generators to keep urgent surgery going. Traffic lights went dark and citizens turned into traffic cops. People were trapped in elevators, and many more couldn’t get down from their skyscraper apartments. With city subways halted, many thousands had to trudge miles homeward.

Electric utilities worked through the night to turn the lights back on, painstakingly reconnecting interrupted systems, while an entire region coped, relatively cheerfully. But it was also clear that the system needed much more provision for emergency power, and a lot better understanding of how to control malfunctions. It needed more of a brain and more centralized control.

Massive fixes followed, including regional control centers like the ones in Holyoke, MA, and Guilderland, NY. supervised by a partly voluntary national electricity reliability authority in Princeton, NJ.

But the responses didn’t completely solve reliability or recovery problems of a fantastically complex system. As in other parts of the world, the big northeastern grid was challenged again.

Because of multiple lightning strikes on a sultry summer night, New York City suffered a city-wide blackout on Wednesday, July 13, 1977. Luckily, the blackout was limited to the nine million people served by a single utility, Consolidated Edison, but massive looting broke out in many neighborhoods. Furthermore, the system had undergone some changes since 1965 that actually made it harder to recover. The blackout actually took twice as long to end as the events a dozen years before.

And in 2003, a power line sagging into an untrimmed tree in Ohio set off a chain of failures that plunged 50 million people in the American northeast into darkness on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003. Enough was enough. This time, a federal law gave the Princeton reliability agency full authority to set rules.

Power grids arise from the nature of that mysterious “fluid,” electricity. Except in batteries, electricity is difficult to store. In general the output of a spinning generator has to be matched by power demand. And that demand is varying, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, in a particular location. It goes up when people wake and get ready to go to work or school, and again in the afternoon and evening when people head home, prepare dinner, and do the laundry. It goes down during the day and even more at night. It swells on hot afternoons when people turn on air conditioners.

Those generators cost huge amounts of capital, creating intense pressures to economize. A remedy is to share power over wide regions. Such sharing sprang up in both Germany and America soon after Thomas Edison’s package of innovations in 1882 that created a practical system to light homes and offices more brightly and cleanly than gas lamps.

If something causes a surge in the system, that fault must be isolated. But, as in 1977, a system that got rid of sulfur-spewing local coal-fired generators becomes more reliant on electricity from long-distance power lines. And lightning can hit transmission lines four times in an hour—after the crews of the back-up gas-fired generators on barges have gone home. Engineers can calculate the wrong settings for a circuit-breaker. Or a system controller can remain ignorant that he doesn’t have a particular power line open, because the display for it is in the next room—so he hesitates to “shed load” by cutting off part of the city. Or the massive underground electricity supply lines for a city can lose power for the generators that circulate their refrigerated oil coolant—so it takes hours to re-energize them.

Our Lady of Disasters keeps finding new points of vulnerability in the fabric of modern life. As we back off storing more and more greenhouse gases in our stratosphere, and move to “smarter,” more decentralized electricity grids with swiftly-varying power supplies from solar panels and windmills, humanity will face even sterner tests of the reliability of our basic systems.

[Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for the Xconomy Forum. Example: early in 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the miner’s safety lamp.]

Further reading:

Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack; A Nation Unprepared; Surviving the Aftermath, New York, Crown Publishers, 2015; lead item, “CBS Sunday Morning,” Nov. 1, 2015.

Victor K. McElheny, “Improbable Strikes by Lightning Tripped Its System, Con Ed Says,” New York Times, July 15, 1977, A2.

Victor K. McElheny, “Technology: The Blackout Load on Phone System,” New York Times, July 20, 1977, D1 and D13.

Victor K. McElheny, “Con Ed President Says System Designed to Avert Blackout Actually Was a Factor in Bringing It On,” New York Times, July 21, 1977, 28

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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