[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: A Question Still Unanswered: How Did the Blackout Happen?

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon May 10 23:07:10 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

The failure modes of decentralized systems are quite intriguing -- especially when they're still being analyzed as though they formed a centralized system. The question is, will people recognize the same subtle errors when it appears as fraudulent failure of the international e-commerce networks?


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

/--------- E-mail Sponsored by Fox Searchlight ------------\


An official selection of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, THE CLEARING
stars ROBERT REDFORD and HELEN MIRREN as Wayne and Eileen Hayes - a
husband and wife living the American Dream. Together they've raised two
children and struggled to build a successful business from the ground
up. But there have been sacrifices along the way. When Wayne is
kidnapped by an ordinary man, Arnold Mack (WILLEM DAFOE), and held for
ransom in a remote forest, the couple's world is turned inside out.
Watch the trailer at: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/theclearing/index_nyt.html


A Question Still Unanswered: How Did the Blackout Happen?

May 10, 2004


WASHINGTON, May 5 - As the electric grid approaches its
season of peak strain, engineers say they still cannot
answer the central question of how a power failure in Ohio
on Aug. 14, 2003, became the biggest blackout in North
American history. 

Investigators, including officials from the United States
and Canada, say that the eastern power grid - the vast
complex of generators, substations and transmission lines
through which the power failure spread last August - has
become so large, complicated and heavily loaded in the last
two decades that it is difficult to determine how a single
problem can expand into an immense failure. 

A report issued by the Energy Department on April 5 put
forward extensive recommendations for reducing the
likelihood of isolated problems, like the failure of
transmission lines in Ohio last August. But the report
stopped short of speculating how a local problem cascaded
into a catastrophe that spread from northeastern Ohio
through Michigan, Ontario and New York and into parts of
Connecticut and New Jersey. 

Investigators did identify how local failures could become
larger difficulties in a way that had not been previously
known: protective devices called relays could be tricked
into shutting down power lines if they sensed
short-circuits that did not actually exist. But the report
only hinted at solutions. 

The report has drawn mixed reactions from electricity
experts. While some said it was thorough and balanced,
others said that it reflected a bias by its overseer, the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to de-emphasize ways
that deregulation of the electric market might have
affected the system's reliability and vulnerability. 

Robert Blohm, an electricity consultant who first
questioned some of the report's calculations, said in an
e-mail message: "We've charged ahead with long distance
markets in electricity without realizing/understanding the
reliability effects which this blackout brought home." 

People involved in preparing the report acknowledged that
it focused on the origins of the blackout and did not fully
explain how it spread. One specialist, Gerry Cauley, the
director of standards at the North American Electric
Reliability Council, an industry group founded after a
widespread blackout in the Northeast in 1965, said it made
sense to promptly address the events that started the
blackout because they were easily preventable. The events
in Ohio were "so egregious that they just should have never
happened," he said. 

Alison Silverstein, senior energy policy adviser to the
regulatory commission, who drafted much of the report, said
in an interview: "Reliability is about taking care of the
basics every single day. That's what all of those prior
blackouts told us. That's what this blackout told us." 

Investigators concluded that power lines initially failed
in the blackout because they came into contact with tree
branches. The inquiry also found that an Ohio utility and a
regional power control agency did not have the computer
tools to spot failures as they occurred and make
compensating adjustments. 

Focusing on the origins of last year's blackout was easier
than looking in detail at how it spread, experts said. Mr.
Cauley said that lines, substations and generating stations
fell in such profusion that plotting just two or three
seconds of events takes weeks of work. He says he hopes to
finish a detailed analysis by the first anniversary of the

The report discusses several hypotheses about the spread of
the disturbance, including relays confusing huge power
flows with short-circuits and reacting by shutting down
lines. Installation of relays that can tell the difference
is probably years away, experts said. 

A broader question is whether the power failure would have
been less extensive if the system had been set up to
tolerate more disruptions. "Maybe the Midwest would not
have gone down," said Jack Casazza, a transmission expert
and consultant. Conversely, he said, had the relays not
tripped, it is also possible that the blackout might have
spread further. "Maybe the whole darn East Coast would have
gone down. I think it's important to know the difference." 

The report cautions that "simulation of these events is so
complex that it may be impossible to ever completely prove"
theories about the events. Such a thorough analysis was
"not a job we could do in the time we had available," said
David Meyer, senior adviser to the Office of Electric
Transmission and Distribution in the Department of Energy. 

The report notes that some companies on the grid failed to
submit complete data and that some utilities, asked to say
when and why various components of the electric system shut
down, did not fully respond. 

The report's focus on initial failures in the blackout
contrasts with similar studies of earlier power failures.
In 1978, discussing blackouts in 1965 and 1977, the
regulatory commission said that it was "not possible to
prevent an occasional localized power failure." The trick,
the investigators said then, was to prevent them from
spreading. Ms. Silverstein said that the 1977 blackout was
less than a tenth the size of the 2003 blackout, and easier
to diagnose. 



Get Home Delivery of The New York Times Newspaper. Imagine
reading The New York Times any time & anywhere you like!
Leisurely catch up on events & expand your horizons. Enjoy
now for 50% off Home Delivery! Click here:


For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters 
or other creative advertising opportunities with The 
New York Times on the Web, please contact
onlinesales at nytimes.com or visit our online media 
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo

For general information about NYTimes.com, write to 
help at nytimes.com.  

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

More information about the FoRK mailing list