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Ira A. Wilner
August 17, 2003
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1965 (Great Northeast Blackout)
In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
Ironically I had gotten home from school and had begun to finish putting together a Heathkit power inverter to run off of an old car battery when the lights started to dance and flicker and eventually went out. The overhead flourescent light in my bedroom actually tried to stay on, but very dimly as the local distribution grid voltage sagged to near nothing as "Big Alice" the huge Alice Chalmers steam turbine generator at Consolidated Edison of NY's Astoria power plant attempted to power all of Queens all by itself!
Locally we had been experiencing brownuts during the past summer as Con Ed had not kept up with the growing power demand in our neighborhood for air conditioning. So, at first I assumed we had a local transformer burnout. But when I switched on a portable radio, to my astonishment the FM dial was empty. Nothing was on the air from the Empire State Building or nearby New Jersey or Long Island! Hmmm I thought, crazy!
I remember finding one AM station still on the air, dead air, no programming. It might have been WMCA or some other NYC station with transmitter out in the swamplands of New Jersey. After a while the station began to play ancient records whose format did not jive with their normal rock'n'roll programming. And every few minutes the untrained voice of a transmitter engineer would break in with a station ID and an appolgy about having technical difficulties. As the hour progressed his voice got more and more strained. He was unable to establish contact with his NYC studios and was also unable to tune in other NYC stations. Being all alone in a NJ swamp he began to wonder if the unthinkable had happened to NYC. He sounded really frightened.
Gradually other stations came back on the air as their emergency generators took hold. One station was back on the air with only a battery operated remote mixer providing the feed from their midtown manhattan studios to their transmitter site.
As dusk fell I went outside my apartment house, flashlight in hand, to wait for my father to make it home from the City. By nine PM I gave up and came back indoors. My dad arrived at around 11 PM after having walked all the way home from lower Manhattan. And without a flashlight to greet him he did manage to bump his head on his way upstairs.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
The NE blackout of 65 and now the blackout of 03 were all caused by the several issues:
1) AC power transmission systems are inherently unstable. That is, they tend to oscillate whenever they are upset by even a minor disturbance. This is an inherent charcteriestic of AC coupled systems. There is plenty of mathematics to prove it. Stated without the math concepts, imagine if you will that each generator in a system can alternately act like an electric motor depending upon whether the AC power phase angle is leading or lagging. Each generator looks like a spring to each other generator on an AC network. The combination of machine mass, springiness of the electromagnetic fields within the generators and the network reactances, long inductive power transmission lines create a very low frequency resonant network. Thus any disturbance, pwoer fluctuation, sudden load change, will reflect into the network and bounce back and forth. The boinging causes significant energy surges that can trip out safety disconnects withing the network.
2) Very quick, coordinated responses from network control computers are required to dampen out the oscillation before it builds to high enough peaks to cause the network to crumble. This is an almost impossible task given the few precious seconds one has to act. In the 1960's we did not have computers fast enough to be able to quickly analyze a situation and determine what commands to give to generating stations, switchyards and the like to help restabilize the grid. Supposedly we have that technology in place today.
3) Human error actually precipitated the NE blackout of 65. First of all, one overcurrent protection relay at the Canadian Ontario Queenston power plant on the Niagra River was miss-adjusted. Ironically I had visited that facility with my parents a few years prior and I have a photograph of the control panel that housed the bad relay! That relay tripped out one of five transmission lines feeding power to the US from Canada. The line was not overloaded, but the relay had been set too low. However, with only four lines left in service and as the late afternoon electrical demand continued to go up here in the east the remaining lines were soon at capacity and tripped out all at once. The sudden massive loss of energy plus the oscillatory surging on ur grid caused protective overload relays to open at many power plants creating an even greater voltage and frequency dip.
Down in NYC Con Ed's master control room saw the problem begin but could not save the NYC local grid from collapse because they were waiting for verbal approval to disconnect from the Northeast Power Grid. Protocol required permission from the NE grid control center for any major change by a member utiltiy. By the time the permission was granted it was too late. The faults had snowballed down to NYC and its system crashed too.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Undercapitalization, political and corporate greed, lack of a single government authority and command and control center with computers capable of understanding the complexity of the networks to be able to automatically control its behavior, lack of sufficient already rotating standby generator capacity and reliance on major AC interties have made us very vulnerable.
1) Every region must have sufficient local generating capacity that can spring on line the instant a long distance pwoer source goes away.
2) If need be, government subsidies should be used to finance transmission system upgrades to insure that networks stay well ahead of demand. We subsidize the trucking, airline and oil industries with out tax dollars. So whay not do the same for power transmission which is even more vital to our economy and national health?
3) All system interties should be converted over to DC. One reason why northern New England was spared from the blackout of 2003 was its DC connection to Hydro Quebec. DC interties buffer and isolate AC power related instabilities from feeding through to other power networks.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Both were significant
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
Any time you have a massive loss of electrical energy, the nature of the beast when you do not generate all of your power needs locally, you also suffer widespread economic losses which may never be recovered. And then there is the untold suffering from those caught up in an urban lifestyle, elevators, subways, loss of traffic control signals, etc.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
In 1965 I was in high school. It was fun and exciting as I was already home for the day.
I had left the NYC area in 1996. So that blackout affected me only indirectly. I was concerned for the safety of relatives who lived in NYC, especially with the civil unrest that occured.
The 2003 blackout did not affect us in Northern New England, though a broadcast client of mine whose FM transmitter site is in NY state did have power problems.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
Astonishment the first time out. I had no idea the grid was so fragile and that engineers did not have it under control. Nor did they have a clue that such an event was possible considering what they thought they had for system protection.
Not surprised when it happened again in 1977 in NYC as my experience with Con Edison was bungling and doing too little too late.
More astonished when it happended again in 2003 across the entire region considering the advances in computers, software and switchgear.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
I live in a rural area where we experience short, one to two hour or less blackouts several times a year due to lightning stikes, trees falling on lines and other natural disasters. As a result we have ample batteries, flashlights, bottled water and alternate means of heat at home. In addition all of our electic/electronic alarm clocks have full battery backup capability. I designed them myself so they'll still wake you on time even without power present. And our computers are also fully protected from power blinks and blackouts. These are the normal power interruptions for us that we take in stride unlike our urban folks for whom any power blink is abnormal.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
See above. My opinions of Con Ed are based upon actual experience in my old NYC neighborhoos when they refused to keep up with energy consumption growth until it was too late. They had been forewarned of the rewiring going on in our cooperative apparment complex to suppost air conditioning. Only when the neigborhood transformers started to burn up and we were suffering severe brownouts did they finally swung into emergency action. In three weeks they rebuilt the local distribution system, with street crews working 24 hours a day. They should have done so three years prior and on a normal time schedule. Instead they paid contractors and their own workers enormous amounts of overtime wages to keep our lights on.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
Other (please specify)
If other, please specify:
The northeast blackout followed by sanitation worker strikes, transit worker strikes and other failures of the urban infrastructure of NYC convinced me that city life, though fun and exciting was quite precarious. After college and marriage my wife and I made the decison to seek a rural life of greater independence. We've never looked back.
This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
In 1977 the social situation in NYC had changed. The makeup of the city, the demands of minorities had changed and the politicians were not properly responsive. City government had been going through a major economic crisis with layoffs of non civil servant employees and not hiring in replacements for retirees. Things were looking a bit grim. So, no surprise. In the 2003 blackout Mayor Bloomberg made sure all of the City's police were out all night keeping the peace just in case. And of course the events of 9/11 had sobered up a lot of New Yorkers too. And plans made in the aftermath helped to keep the peace this time around.
Ira A. Wilner,
Story #283, The Blackout History Project, 17 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/283/>.
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