When the Grid Goes Dark

If you lived through the Y2K fiasco, you might remember a lot of hype with almost zero real-world ramifications in the end. As the calendar year flipped from 1999 to 2000 many forecast disastrous software bugs in machines controlling our banking and infrastructure. While this potential disaster didn’t quite live up to its expectations there was another major infrastructure problem, resulting in many blackouts in North America, that reared its head shortly after the new millennium began. While it may have seemed like Y2K was finally coming to fruition based on the amount of chaos that was caused, the actual cause of these blackouts was simply institutional problems with the power grid itself.

Built-in Protection Hardware

While blackouts of size and scope of the few that occurred in the early 2000s aren’t very common, local small-scale blackouts are almost guaranteed at some point or other. Although power utilities are incentivized to prevent as many of them as they can (if the power’s out, the meters aren’t spinning), there’s no guaranteed way to prevent lightning from striking power lines or expensive equipment, or to prevent unscrupulous electricians from overloading panels and damaging transformers, or preventing birds from nesting in every substation.

In theory, once there is a problem (referred to as a “fault” on the electrical system) there are a variety of protective devices to ensure that the interruption in power is as short as possible. Most electrical faults are brief, transient faults that will clear themselves after a small amount of time. These are things like lightning strikes or tree branches brushing power lines. Rather than open a breaker for these faults which will need to be reset by a person, small devices called “reclosers” can re-energize sections of the grid that have been affected by a temporary fault like this. For more permanent faults, a larger breaker will open but will have to be manually closed after the fault can be physically cleared by technicians. The power grid also makes extensive use of fuses, which are one-time-use devices unlike breakers and reclosers.

A Perfect Failure

All of this protective equipment isn’t without its faults, though, and can misbehave under the right circumstances to extraordinary effect. Such was the case in the Northeast Blackout of 2003 where a transmission line made contact with a tree in Ohio. Normally an incident like this would be dealt with swiftly by the protective equipment and grid operators. This was a summer day, though, and the reason that the power line came into contact with the tree was because it was sagging farther than normal from carrying close to its maximum rated current. More current means more thermal expansion of the wires, which means more chances to touch things that it shouldn’t touch.

Toronto during blackout
by Camerafiend CC-BY-SA-3.0

Since this was a summer afternoon, when the first transmission line tripped offline all of the normal load on the circuit plus all of the peak power had to be sent through other circuits to avoid power outages. Normally this would be dealt with easily, but the other circuits were also at peak carrying capacity, and those circuit tripped offline once the emergency load was transferred to them, which resulted in more transmission lines becoming overloaded, and more circuits tripping offline. When everything was said and done, an estimated 50 million people in the US and Canada were without power. It was the second-most widespread power outage in history at that point and was caused by little more than a hot day and a small computer bug that allowed the cascading failure to quickly get out of hand.

It’s important to note, again, that the power companies are businesses, and that it doesn’t make financial sense to build a power grid that is more robust than it really needs to be. A certain amount of emergency rating is a good idea, and the Ohio company may have been acting somewhat negligent in the end, though, but at least they weren’t being openly nefarious. It’s also relatively easy to point fingers in hindsight.

Blackouts as a Business Model

On the other hand, however, there have been large-scale blackouts that have been caused by companies actively trying to profit off of them. The California Electricity Crisis of 2000 and 2001 was a textbook case of conflict of interest, where energy traders such as Enron, who had control over energy supplies to the state, were also the ones who were trading energy futures. This practice isn’t allowed anymore, but it did take a company who is now famous for corruption, shady business practices, and bankruptcy, to catalyze a change in the laws which allowed for this level of deregulation in the energy market. California suffered massive rolling blackouts during the crisis even though the transmission system was robust enough to handle the demand and there was enough generation capacity to power the entire state without the blackouts.

Jump Starting a Power Plant

While there is a regulatory agency (in North America) with some teeth (thanks to Enron) to deal with problems like this, the power companies still have to be able to restore power once a blackout occurs. While any damage to the grid must be repaired, getting the power on isn’t quite as simple as flipping a switch at a nuclear plant or a combustion turbine. If these base-load plants lose power, they need either off-site power from something called a black-start plant, or they need large diesel generators in order to start producing power again. Boilers must be lit, control rods must be moved, and fuel must be delivered to the plant, and all of these things take energy. Generally power companies use hydroelectric plants for their black-start capability, but in areas without the geology to support damming a river, other methods must are currently used.

While small power outages will almost certainly happen to everyone, large-scale blackouts are relatively rare despite aging infrastructure and unscrupulous companies. Certainly, power flow can be very complicated on scales as large as the power grid, but in the next article in this series we will take a look at the smart grid: the current modernization of the electric grid and ways that we have been using modern technology to improve everything about it.

106 thoughts on “When the Grid Goes Dark

  1. Well … it was a rough time getting hundreds or thousands of scripts and hardcoded stuff up to 4-digit-year abilities for sure. And there have been failures afterwards, luckily none were life-threatening, AFAIK. To say there was “nothing” is quite an exaggeration, it was a VERY busy time.
    There is the next “hardcoded failure” looming, my business is humming from taking care of UNIX timecode issues where years after 2049 or 2069 are considered 19xx, while clients are now actively using those years for contracts.

    It’s good if there are more protective measurements installed than just a single guy’s night time hacking :-)

    1. I agree. Being involved directly with 2000 complience within banking and heavy industry., i can only say that it’s a testament to those involved in migrating/bringing legacy kit upto scratch. I’t was a hellishly stressful time and a good earner to boot!

    2. Saying that it was “nothing” is definitely an exaggeration, but it’s still nowhere near the levels of exaggeration we were hearing from the doomsayers in 1999:
      “Your alarms won’t go off, or will go off constantly!”
      “Your car won’t start!”
      “Your oven will turn itself on and burn down your house!”
      “Airplanes will fall from the sky!”
      If it had a timer, there would be someone claiming that it was going to rebel against mankind and help bring about the apocalypse.

      1. Yes and there are people (then and now) that claim that chemtrails are used by UN to control the population.

        Don’t mistake people making up shit (or listening to people making it up) for information providers. The potential problems that could actually have happened (economical chaos, power routing going berserk etc.) would have had much worse consequences to people than ovens turning themselves on…

        1. Megol

          Unlike the many conspiracy theories proven true.
          The CIA tested Flu every year to discover spread patterns. Hundreds of people died because of that.
          We know about NSA spying on everyone and everything, and their penchant to single out the porny side.
          I err on the side of conspiracy because people with power are mostly batshit insane Sociopaths.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unethical_human_experimentation_in_the_United_States

        2. The biggest strike against the chemtrail theory is simple physics any aerosol released at that altitude would end up being blown tens maybe even hundreds of miles away and dispersed before it makes it to the ground.

          1. “Chemtrail conspiracy theories began to circulate after the United States Air Force (USAF) published a 1996 report about weather modification.”

            Is it better to believe in something and take precautions to safeguard yourself then be proven wrong, or Don’t believe take no precautions and then be proven wrong?
            That headache may be a tumor or it may not maybe the MRI is worth it for peace of mind.

      2. All that doomsday crap was coming from the media.

        I was doing Y2k compliance testing at the time. There were many instances where customers could mitigate potential costs of tens of thousands of dollars (or even safety) just by paying a several hundred dollars for my service call.

        On the other hand I told a lot of very relieved customers that the Y2k bug was not as bad as the media presented and that they really don’t need compliance testing as it would be more expensive than the benefit it presented.

        I should mention that hardware compliance testing only ensured the BIOS reported the year in a four digit format, it did nothing to test the software, that was the responsibility of the software provider.

        We now have the same issue coming up with Linux in the year 2038 (2k38).

        1. *nix systems have much less of a potential issue with 2038 and others had with Y2K. The 2038 thing was recognized *and fixed* years before 2000.

          Only very old legacy systems running a *nix system predating the 2038 fixes will be any possible problem.

          Huh. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2038_problem This says some Android versions will crash if the date is set to the end and allowed to roll over to -1901. Now who dropped that ball? The issue was well known long before any work began on Android.

          1. Last time I checked (which was admittedly a number of years ago now) the time stamp used by PHP was still vulnerable. I thought it was the system time stamp from *nix or at least the environment time stamp from Apache.

            I’ll go read your link, Thanks.

          2. From the Wikipedia link above –

            Embedded systems that use dates for either computation or diagnostic logging are most likely to be affected by the 2038 bug.

            Many transportation systems from flight to automobiles use embedded systems extensively. In automotive systems, this may include anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC/ESP), traction control (TCS) and automatic four-wheel drive; aircraft may use inertial guidance systems and GPS receivers

          3. I have a hard time figuring why ABS systems have to give a flying fuck what year it is…

            .. and if they do, with any luck their lithium backup will have run out by then and they face each day sound in the knowledge that it’s 1st January 1970

    3. Agreed. I made lots of good money reviewing and patching ancient software and data for potential Y2K problems. Also got my first company cellphone so I could be “on call” during the big event. Without all that work, there actually would have been lots of problems.

    1. Supply lines. War, natural disaster of the right magnitude, economic collapse will cut supply lines.
      Cities like NYC will get the majority of aid while everyone else can go fuck themselves.
      Supermarkets only have about 3 days of supply and even blizzards cut the stock of meds.
      Say you take BP meds. Your supply runs out and you get by rebound effect, bang comes the heart attack or stroke.
      Insulin same problem.
      We aren’t even into food and water.
      The solar panels are fine, the canning is good, but if you need meds may as well buy the coffin now.
      I’m not A PREPPER but I do take meds and have spoken to my pharmacist. He’s the one who mentioned stock going low to a blizzard. He also mentioned EMP as his worry.
      People forget we are LONG overdue for many Geological disasters. Everything from a supervolcano to one of the fault lines getting a big old shake up. And a solar flare.
      I suggest everyone take the time to ferret out stories from those who have survived various wars and social collapse. Insightful shit like books are important because they can be traded for food more than money can. Or used as tp.
      Manual skills and various EMT type training will help keep one alive.
      As a tip buy a generator that can run on propane. Gas stations may run out but spare propane will, still be found even if it involves raiding a neighbors grill.

      1. The scariest thing is when some moof milker things it’s a good idea to hook parts of the power grid to the internet which makes terrorist attacks potentially far more destructive.

        1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-06/grid-in-imminent-danger-from-cyber-threats-energy-report-says
          The U.S. Energy Department says the electricity system “faces imminent danger” from cyber-attacks, which are growing more frequent and sophisticated, but grid operators say they are already on top of the problem.

          In the department’s landmark Quadrennial Energy Review, it warned that a widespread power outage caused by a cyber-attack could undermine “critical defense infrastructure” as well as much of the economy and place at risk the health and safety of millions of citizens.

          1. Still some stuff should never be connected to the public internet and ransom ware attack on power company computer should not even be a thing.
            The ransom ware could be prevented outright by having no connection between the internet and critical systems.
            In case someone comes over with a USB drive and infects the system keep a back up image of the entire OS and software at a remote location so even if the system was totally compromised the worst it would be is wipe the drive flash the bios just to be sure and dd the new image back onto the drive.
            This is also why I’m very much against DRM esp the phone home kind on critical software as it needs to be easy to return stuff to a functional state.
            Plus if it needs to call a remote server well there goes your airgap fire wall and a hacker can just DDOS the key server and shut everyone using said software down.

          2. This has been a concern since the ’90s (and probably before – substations connected via modem before the internet existed [and some still do – is the modem approaching security through obscurity?] in ’98, a (the first?) Critical Infrastructure Protection laws were passed, re-upped and reinforced in 2003.

            This does not dismiss the idea of a cyber attack taking down sections of the grid, and techniques for this were demonstrated in the Crimea incident last year (I believe that was the timing), but utilities are continuing to secure utility assets exposed to the ‘net / remote access.

            And yea, when you need to monitor and regulate a substation or transfer point 300 miles away from the nearest city, it is far cheaper to remotely monitor and manage it then hire a team to be out there daily to manage the site.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_infrastructure_protection

          1. The easiest and cheapest way is not always the best way to do something and in fact it’s often the opposite case and even sometimes results in accidents that become the subject for an episode of engineering disasters.
            Heck I recommend some very tough regulations on having an air gap firewall for critical systems.
            Plus a general ban on phone home style DRM and pushed updates on SCADA software.

          2. Besides the power grid it’s self can carry data just make sure to filter it at the distribution transformers so nothing but the AC power signal can go to and from the customer lines.
            This way you can’t have a black out caused by bored teenagers DDOSing the network like is all too possible for equipment connected to the internet.

      2. People on medication etc will no doubt be critically vulnerable…. however:

        Food:
        I pick a wild apple off a tree infront of two friends, one drunk and the other she is adultrous and has a lot of vanity. the vanity one was in shock and thought the apple would kill me…. Most people are like that around here, cannot survive a national disaster on such scales as you describe!

        Water: Ok, you’ll likely need heat… Lots of it and a cold stone. A couple containers like a black pan for evaporation and a pan for collection, a partially cleaned stone is still safer than untreated river water…. Unless you find a natural spring (Mountain Water is safest but don’t drink too much…) Also drink rain water right away if collected and avoid rain in built up areas due to Pollution.

        Toiletries:
        Keep about a mile away from possible water sources, Dig a few holes between trees in half mile distances between them relatively for excrement, Urinate well away from water sources if you can help it, but if ya gotta go ya gotta go!
        Urination down-stream is better, however is selfish towards other knowledgeable survivors as it could affect them.

        Propane engines:
        Nah not good enough, convert it to run off coked gas, A bonfire whilst cooking food can also be a source of unrefined gas by containing some sticks in a heat treated vase/Pyrex, etc. and partially refined by bubbling through water for purer gas. Don’t mix with/use acetone (as a coal/acetone/catalyst) or try to compress the acetylene gas produced through such dangerous hacks (BOOOOOOOOOM!!!! if over 15PSi ish and/or mixed with oxygen at similar pressure!!!!!!!) Compressor could be run from solar+batteries and the running engine could compress a 2ndary tank.

        Electricity:
        Not critical, Befriend people whom have solar power or use above Propane to coked gas converted engine.

        Communication:
        See HAM Radio….. Not critical, but could restore some things needed to rebuild a country.

        Clothing and shelter from plant fibers timbre etc…. but reuse the house bricks from the abandoned houses or the houses containing deceased.

        Hygene:
        Contradictorily don’t deal with the deceased from their houses as it could spread disease…. Preferably burn most houses because it lowers the risk and the risk outweighs the waste…. Also some brick should be left intact if lucky anyway. Don’t clean yourself next to rivers, take a container of water a quarter mile away from water sources (Quarter mile as bacteria will not quite evolve much by the time it gets to the water sources). Immediately airiate ALL wet towels, clothes, etc and preferably around a heat source: A brick and pavement stove with a raised laundry drying rack made out of timbre+ brick+ cinder blocks+etc (Metal will rust and carry risks but can be used as it is low risk, relatively to all other risks so far)

        There are a tonne more stuff to cover in the event of a severe disaster, however the post is SOOOOOOOOO Long it might not pass the automod-fyltre

          1. Dude I have a HUGE physical library and a HUGE backup library. I’ve tried I’ve tried to cover every skill possible as well as entertainment.

          1. Both have no common sense and are pretty thick skulled!
            The one that likes his drink (Borderline alkie) had a girlfriend so the adulteress got interested in him, caused a split-up, the drunk lost a few friends, the adulteress tried to stir false feeling of adultery between non adulterous friends.
            The lady has high vanity, has to have a show-room style apartment and has to try to look like the TV celebrities. She is one of those stereotypical bad woman drivers on the road and I won’t even get in the car… it’s that bad!!!!
            The lady cannot fathom that the fruit and vegetables in the market once upon a time grew in the ground.
            She is also partially into that new-age hipster “Aliens is God” type stuff, despite the debunking videos pointing out the obvious flaws. The list goes on.

            The drunk has no clue…. Maybe if he stopped drinking then he might start to think for himself.

            There is a lot of people in this town at similar level of intellect as the two people described (In other words the cause of their death will be their stupidity!)

            In comparison, my two (Female) cousins are both university graduates, one is a psychiatrist and the other has been in the field of cancer research (The actual lab, not the charity… BTW) and they have their heads screwed on.

          2. Well the drunk can’t get it up and the adulteress is a diseased dirty whore, maybe my ex wife. In the morning the drunk wakes without any type of dangerous disease except crabs. The adulteress dies a horrible Syphilitic death.

        1. Setting houses on fire when there’s no fire dept. to deal with said fire once it gets out of control is a very bad idea. Usable only for very sparsely populated areas.

          1. It will burn itself out eventually…. make sure you plan ahead…. like everything: assess your situation before during and after.

            Make a fire-break by emptying houses of flamabilities and preferably knocking them down: Quick way:
            Anarchist cookbook maybe your survival guide here – keep an encrypted copy sliced into arbitrary data with an encrypted offset list file that if decrypted will still leave the 3 and 4 letter agencies head-scratching.

            Find a farm and acquire loads of fertilizer, get some deisel/coal (Depends on if you want a powder or liquid form, powder is safer), Mix (can’t remember ratios), now you got AmFo.

            Take said AmFo and prep several houses within the to-be-on-fire perimeter at least two houses deep.
            Gunpowder in a 13A-fuse or larger container should be a sufficient blasting cap. Non-safety Match-heads dissolved and soaked in some wool make a good fuse.

            Blow up said area to create the safety barrier and then light the middle. The floor in the blast area will self extinguish but keep an eye on it and/or start collecting bricks and removing flamables (Discard flamables nearer the fire. Stack/dump the bricks in a pile. Blah Blah Blah ETC….

          2. Damn, now I gotta worry about uncontrolled idiots burning shit up “for the greater good” of public sanitation.

            Seriously if you can spare enough calories to run around doing that, it ain’t a bad enough situation to need to.

          3. Calories:
            Enough of that in the ground: It is called fruit and veg, enough meat if you can be asked to farm the local heard.

            Idiots burning stuff down:
            Hmmm yes there will be and they will make infertile ground, yet it was already infertile with all that concrete, tar, fumes etc….. Oh and you want to be sure to move chemicals out the way anyway.

            I could go on hence, “Blah blah blah ETC” comment above

      3. I’m not sure NYC or La will get the majority of goods. Last place i want to be is any major city when the crap hits the fan.

        Thing like generators or even solar panels are nice when the power goes off. But a long term outage, you will need things like food, water, sanitation. If fact, during wartime most people die from disease than being shot.

        1. Steven-X
          Most goods and services will go to major population centers. Then they will filter down from those with greatest need or power to the genpop.
          Major population centers will be the first to riot when they have to suffer.
          I would imagine most minority areas would be cordoned off.
          The TPTB already understand where the dangerous areas are and don’t really give a shit if they ruin their own neighborhoods and kill their own people.

  2. As I recall Texas is not directly connected to the north American power grid. I also recall Texas being conected by DC-DC converters to send or recieve power accross state lines.

    1. True Story.
      I worked at a hospital and in a 2 week span 4 people shoot themselves with nail guns.
      4 out of 4 came back nine months later. With there wifes.
      Funny as sh!t.

      1. hmmm, I have a few questions otherwise I’m sure that the statistics may make us draw the wrong conclusion:

        So if I understand correctly, the men shot themselves after having sex with their wifes, was there some form of regret?
        Or did the wifes shoot them in order to have sex? Or did the wifes shoot the husbands because of disappointment or anger about failed anti conception?
        Or did the men shot themselves and then they got bored and they had more sex then normal?
        Were these nailguns electric nailguns?

    2. So if I understand correctly, the power grid is mainly there to control the population. And if it fails, the control fails and the population instantly grows (only noticeable with a 9 months delay). But perhaps I did not understand it correctly…

    1. A solar eclipse nearly took down the power grid in Europe a few years ago. Solar is installed with the expectation the power available to the grid is fairly constant, since clouds move gradually and average out over many sites. A solar eclipse is another story: everything goes dark at once, and comes back on at once. With many months of advance notice and preparation time, the utilities were able to ride it out.

          1. There might be, it’s the time of day solar hits peak production and everything else has to idle because there’s no dialling it back, if it’s super sunny with a fresh breeze and not very hot, there won’t be much AC load, so could be high percentage solar. Conversely if cloudy and muggy and pissing everyone off who wanted to see the thing, then low percentage solar, natural gas gennies already spinning, no problem.

    2. I have checked out a bunch of these diy solar projects and am truly scared for linemen working in their neighborhoods, most of them are just plugging their green (or portable generator) power source into the home wiring without any way to isolate the house from the grid during a blackout causing power to flow back into the system creating safety and logistical problems for the power company that controls that grid. Now one yahoo’s short cutted green project might not be a big concern but what happens when he convinces 10 of his neighbors to go green for cheap?

    1. He is not far off the mark. Two weeks I’d say. This is based on observation from 2003 blackout. If it lasted 1 day more, sewage would start backing up (no power for pumps). Water supply would be lost at about the same time. On day 4 looting of supermarkets would begin, since the freezers would be empty and food spoiled. A week later, and food would be out, no water, and disease from sewage spreading. So yeah, 2 weeks.

      Cities are death traps in situation like that.

      1. That is why you learn to live in the wild and not get killed. Not a lot of people will survive a long (Say… relatively permanent) situation, I’m in a large town and will be able to exit to the countryside without any confrontation and fairly fast should any sign of violence occur.
        I’ve got awareness for escape-route galore learned from common-sense (Not common these days) and experience, those routes don’t have CCTV (LOL I have such a small digital footprint also!). I’ll travel light whilst keeping certain things like Solar panels, laptop (E6400) and others hidden in the house between floorboards and/or out and about in weather-resistant containers in dig-outs etc depending on situation at that exact moment… (Most people won’t look certain places because Common-sense ain’t common!)

        1. I agree with you completely. I purchased some land 2 years ago, partly because I plan to go out of the city when SHTF. I’m already felling some trees there for a little self-sufficient cabin and shed. I might be fully ready in about 2 years.

          1. Ya shouldn’t fell your own trees…. They drink your piss and help make the water-table better to drink from.
            Instead, go out somewhere and find some felled trees to yoink (Don’t get caught!).

            Also, digging a tunnel into the ground (you may as well fell the trees around here though and grow bushing above it)…
            You can have an emergency shelter should anything come up, but make sure the way in is raised and you got many auxiliary airways (With fans for fresh air) have a hydroponics system with low-light plant life inside a designated area for the purposes of food+ a little oxygen (Though you’ll burn oxygen faster relative by breathing, unless you have a huge underground area for plant life relative thus requiring some very good structure…. the long lasting test-of-time type of course and think underground bush-forest).

          2. Oh sorry… I meant to imply making an entire underground ecosystem for the purposes of obtaining higher than normal oxygen levels…. the ecosystem should sort itself out without much intervention….

            Though this all seems like the search for the winning lottery ticket would need ramping-up.

      2. Ima drag a Guiness book of records official observer into my clan’s bug out camp… I bet we get the record for civilization to cholera in shortest time…. “But it was too farrrrr to go shit in the latrine…”

  3. I once read a story they considered using a nuclear sub to black start the power plants one one of the islands in Hawaii but they managed to get some large diesel generators over there in a couple of days.

        1. Pretty much shows what’s involved.

          I think it’s limited to just a few megawatts vs the entire output of the sub’s generating capacity as it’s intended for just keep alive power for when the reactor is down but can be used to send power the other way.

  4. If you’re interested in more technical details of a nationwide grid collapse, check this paper about the 2003 Italy blackout. A failure in a single line coming from Switzerland created a cascading effect which ultimately put the entire nation (save for two islands) in the dark for a full day and more since they had to gradually restore power in some way that it would not put too much load to the system.

    http://ewh.ieee.org/soc/pes/psdpc/documents_blackout_panel/PESGM2004-000703.pdf

    Being there with no radio, TV, phones etc, I got an account of what was going on very early by tuning my receiver to local HAM radio repeaters which being equipped with batteries and solar panels remained operational most of the time.

  5. Man, Y2k was awesome. Probably the best time of my professional career (so far).
    In late 1999 companies were panicking and willing to pay pretty much anything to get their systems upgraded, fixed, etc. to be Y2k compliant. Companies were offering, and happy to pay outrageous fees to “save them” from Y2k. Everyone was relieved to see me, happy to sign the cheque, and grateful when I finished. It was the closest IT ever got to being rock stars.
    By January 2000 I was exhausted from working non stop for two months, but I had also made an extra year’s salary in those two months.

  6. i cant imagine that another enron will shut down the grids or even a portion because the grid is so critical that even if a power co was to go belly up financially the government/military will probably swoop in and run the co from the defense budget just like the fdic does to banks that go under.

    however hackers could take it down like right out of terminal error.

  7. We have had a similar problem here but by size only, not as many people effected.

    The problem here is that we have moved too quickly to renewables like wind and solar and these renewables don’t provide base load – there is no sun or wind at night. So now we have infrastructure problems because the infrastructure has to carry higher peak loads.

  8. If I’m not mistaken, the FERC only has jurisdiction in the United States (not “North America”.) Although Canada and the US share electrical grids, the Canadian side is regulated by the National Energy Board.

  9. The 2003 blackout was cool. We enjoyed it. The stars…

    This article’s windup includes the following:
    …unscrupulous electricians … overloading panels and damaging transformers

    I realize writers need to have flexibility… but because of standards, training, insurance requirements, permits and inspections, and the current quality and quantity of protective devices… the malfeasance of “unscrupulous” electricians is WAAY down the list of possible causes for grid outages. We are much more at risk from the actions of poor planning or corporate malfeasance/negligence.

    Just standing up for my electrician friends.

  10. Energy generators in South Australia are pulling something along the lines on an Enron at the moment.

    Shit you not, entire country is corrupt as fuck, we’re ruled by cartels, have been increasingly so for at least 30 years…

  11. I worked as a salaried programmer for a data company in 2000. Over 40 programmers in our company spent the most frenzied and thankless year of 1999 modifying and testing thousands of lines of code to make them Y2K compliant and had we not our business would have gone under. Now when anyone says Y2K was overblown I just smile at their flatulent yammering.

    1. Y2K was a case of some people saw it coming and raised the alarm… and because people heeded that alarm and did something about it, crisis was averted.

      That didn’t stop the media blowing it out of proportion. Claims being made there were well and truly over the top!

      But, we’ve got the Year 2038 problem coming soon… that should be fun!

  12. “Certainly, power flow can be very complicated on scales as large as the power grid, but in the next article in this series we will take a look at the smart grid: the current modernization of the electric grid and ways that we have been using modern technology to improve everything about it.”

    Oh the “smart meter” is going to be a dozy. Everything from health effects, privacy issues, and even overbilling by large amounts.

    1. The work being done at regulatory levels deserves recognition for effort and intent, but left private industry owning much of the generation and distribution grid serving our homes and industries. You know them as the guys that hired the coders for the lowest wage possible whom wrote the code “overbilling by large amounts”. Same guys writing the code that controls the grid.

      Historically we do have a few examples of large scale human engineering and construction with great success and reliability. The Roman Aqueduct and the the Appian Way are two. The Roman Senate did not contract the work out to the lowest bidder, they mandated the roads be built to last 100 years and tasked the Roman Legion to do the work to the spec provided by the Senate. The roads provided rapid transport of the Legion which allowed for the security and rapid growth of the Roman Empire and vastly bolstered trade as a mere aside. We already have the Corps of Engineers but haven’t grown them as would service us best to both train our people and serve the public interest without concern for profit holding back the resolve and quality of result. Really hope we do wake up to them and others that were organized as a serious value to the core of the nation before having to once again hear “A chicken in every pot.”.

      We trust OUR “empire” to the lowest bidder. Failing infrastructure is currently a subject in the news at same time we scoff at preppers yet plenty of us drool over ads for home generators, home solar arrays, new battery technologies, and humorously read ads for MRE’s and pallets of survival food packed to be buried, but still take note of where to find them.

      Considering our grid’s engineering and reliability track record, the concept of a privately owned “Smart Grid” built for profit is worrisome and adding the internet makes for downright scary. It’s ok for day to day… just not for “every” day we will see and DO need to design for. A lot of neat tricks are being utilized such as pumping water back up over the dam at night with excess power when demand is down thus essentially recharging the “battery”, but there are other tricks we’ve also seen such as “rolling blackouts”. And Sol seems to be waking up but we’ve not yet managed to even marginally handle that. And then we pull an Oroville Dam screw-up that seems to have 10 yr old roots in “budgetary concerns”. Roman planning was for 100 yrs.

  13. Rest assured, there is no such thing as a “responsible” utility company. The main problem, is, like with all businesses, profit is the #1 concern. That means that it’s far more profitable not to do maintenance on lines than to do the bare minimum. To answer the question in regards to how that doesn’t hurt profit, the short answer is that the people in charge don’t care. CEOs just want to make as much profit as possible during their short tenure in charge (thus ensuring a fat retirement bonus) and move on to the next company when it becomes unavoidable to do the work. The company they abandoned goes bankrupt, so it doesn’t fit the bill either…. rather the citizens do AND get shoddy service.

    The only way that companies are forced to do “the right thing” is if they are federally operated, as then the government is in charge of getting things done and all those Senators and Congressmen want to get re-elected. Yes I know that many utility companies have State and/or Federal oversight, but that keeps a professional distance allowing one to blame the other for any incidents.

  14. How do you engineer around a regulatory agency which if it ends up regulating something valuable enough to make a profit while also buying the legislature and executive. Wall street for example is simply too big to regulate, the corruption will always find a way legalize it’s activities as long as it can keep a capture on offered party choices and the regulation chain of command upwards in the executive. It incentivizes an overly stable long term complacent situation which has a small base and actually sets up for massive system breaking collapses, think Czarist Russia to Soviets or the French revolution against the monarchy. Electricity probably not profitable enough to acquire a full capture like Goldman Sachs has on the presidential candidates and both houses of congress in the US but through their hands flows most of the money.

  15. While small power outages will almost certainly happen to everyone, large-scale blackouts are relatively rare despite aging infrastructure and unscrupulous companies.

    Ask those in South Australia… they recently had a couple of state-wide black-outs. In both cases, the fallback plan of importing power from Victoria fell flat on its face because the Hayward interconnector couldn’t handle the load.

    Another factor was storms ripping pylons out of the ground: perhaps too greater concentration of generation in one area exacerbated things here, if they could isolate the damaged sections of grid and had sufficient local backup generation, they might’ve been able to keep some lights on in places.

    I might point out for the American audience that South Australia is about 45% larger than Texas and about two thirds of the size of Alaska. Imagine the combined area of Texas and California going dark. That actually happened.

    Then there’s the problem of frequency stability. A turbine maintains a stable frequency through shear physics… it isn’t possible for a rotating mass to just suddenly change speed. (Not safely; just ask the operators of Swanbank power station when one of theirs tried. It’ll try, but throw itself to pieces doing so.)

    Wind and solar is great, BUT, you either need to consider segregating the grid with DC interconnectors, or to somehow keep AC synchronisation.

    It seems silly that they can’t pass some harmonic of 50Hz… say 500Hz through the grid at some low level which is then band-pass filtered then passed through a decade counter to derive a 50Hz “reference” for these inverters to keep sync with the rolling stock across the border.

    Our problem seems to be that no one’s actually sat down and done any research or planning. It’s been designed to the dollar, and we’re getting bitten in the bum by various compromises that have been made in the name of saving the precious dollar.

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