Saturday, August 23, 2003

The blackout had a profound effect on millions of people and cost a huge amount of money. Yet it is over a week now and we still haven't got the foggiest idea what happened. I find this preposterous. In fact, I find it preposterous that the authorities didn't know exactly what happened within minutes of the blackout starting. It's electricity. Every microwatt is measured by somebody somewhere, and most of the information finds its way into computers. There must be facilities showing the operation of the whole grid in real time, and those watching the system must have seen where the problem originated. They are apparently denying that such monitoring exists, but these days, in the light of the supposed threat of terrorism, there must be such a monitoring system, and the authorities must already know what happened. Why are they keeping it a secret? How scary can it be? Since my first posting on the blackout there has been a small amount of new information:

  1. The problem appears to have originated in northern Ohio, probably in an area where power is generated and distributed by FirstEnergy Corp. We know that FirstEnergy is very troubled. It has huge financial problems, including the usual tip-off of a requirement to restate its earnings and projected earnings, mostly caused by its ownership of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. If we've learned anything from the recent debacle of corporate fraud (Enron, Worldcom, etc.), it is that the pressures on corporate managers to support share prices by meeting earnings targets are enormous, and that many of them aren't up to the moral challenge of running public corporations. If earnings aren't good enough, they will be made to be good enough, regardless of what has to be done to do so. Back in the halcyon days when corporations involved in matters of public interest were actually regulated, there were some checks on what corporate managers were allowed to do to cut the costs that they would have liked to cut. Since the regulations have gone, and we are all left to the mercy of the 'market', we are all pretty well doomed. Even such regulators who are left, including those who regulate the nuclear industry, can read the writing on the wall, and go along with whatever the regulated corporations want. In this insane climate, who knows what a politically-connected corporation like FirstEnergy might have been up to. The silence as to the cause of the blackout may be the way of preventing us from ever finding out.

  2. As we are to understand it, the grid collapsed like a line of dominoes, with the collapse of each part of the grid leading to a draw of too much power on the adjacent part of the grid, causing the adjacent part to collapse, and so on, all the way through the area of the blackout. In some cases the problem may be the opposite, where the closing of lines to an adjacent system led to there being too much power available in one area, leading to the shut down of power plants in that area, but for some reason too many power plants were shut. In each case there is a mechanism, a safety switch, between each area, which should have kicked in to stop the falling of each domino in the chain. One of the great unexplained mysteries of the blackout is why every single one of these completely separate mechanisms failed. The mechanisms were in different parts of the grid, geographically spread apart, in different countries, no doubt built at different times using different software, and yet every one of them failed to do what it was specifically constructed to do. How can that be?

  3. Actually, some protective mechanisms did work. Areas adjacent to the area of the blackout which were normally hooked up to it did manage to separate themselves in the appropriate manner. In Ontario, there was a small pocket in the Ontario grid which was detached and continued to function during the blackout (ironically, it was an area served by the Sir Adam Beck generating system, the surge from which possibly caused the problems in New York state, and even more ironically, the generating system which caused the 1965 blackout). In Ohio itself, a system to the south of the FirstEnergy area managed to largely protect itself using just the mechanisms that apparently didn't work elsewhere. Henry Rayne, executive vice president of American Electric Power (AEP) said:

    "It is likely that the automated controls tripped some transmission lines moments before they would have burned down because of extremely high power flows out of our system."

    Pat Hemlepp, spokesman for AEP said:

    "Something happened in the time leading up to the blackout to the north of us. Suddenly, the electrons destined for Columbus or Cincinnati or somewhere turned tail and headed north."

    Presumably the reason there were high power flows out of the system is that northern Ohio suddenly had some reason to draw massive amounts of power from adjacent areas. The protective mechanisms of American Electric Power worked to protect its system against the sudden huge draw from northern Ohio, while the protective mechanisms in Michigan did not work. What happened in northern Ohio that it suddenly required massive amounts of power from elsewhere on the grid?


I'm still stuck with two problems:

  • how did all the protective devices fail at the same time?

  • what caused the sudden massive requirement for power in northern Ohio?


Given early remarks by the Canadian Minister of Defence and New York officials, I have suspicions about a nuclear plant, perhaps the Perry Nuclear Power Plant. I know at the end of the day they'll blame the whole thing on some damned tree, and I won't believe it.

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