Cascade Failures, Computer Problems, And Ohms Law: Understanding The Northeast Blackout Of 2003

We’ve all experienced power outages of some kind, be it a breaker tripping at an inconvenient time to a storm causing a lack of separation between a tree and a power line. The impact is generally localized and rarely is there a loss of life, though it can happen. But in the video below the break, [Grady] of Practical Engineering breaks down the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the largest power failure ever experienced in North America. Power was out for days in some cases, and almost 100 deaths were attributed to the loss of electricity.

[Grady] goes into a good amount of detail regarding the monitoring systems, software simulation, and contingency planning that goes into operating a large scale power grid. The video explains how inductive loads cause reactance and how the effect exacerbated an already complex problem. Don’t know what inductive loads and reactance are? That’s okay, the video explains it quite well, and it gives an excellent basis for understanding AC electronics and even RF electronic theories surrounding inductance, capacitance, and reactance.

So, what caused the actual outage? The complex cascade failure is explained step by step, and the video is certainly worth the watch, even if you’re already familiar with the event.

It would be irresponsible to bring up the 2003 outage without talking about the Texas ERCOT outages just one year ago– an article whose comments section nearly caused a blackout at the Hackaday Data Center!

16 thoughts on “Cascade Failures, Computer Problems, And Ohms Law: Understanding The Northeast Blackout Of 2003

    1. I remember that night. I was in 6th grade. It was an interesting evening. We had a generator, but I’m not sure it worked. Everything was back to normal the next day, so I had to go to school :-(

    1. “Upgrading” brought us all the misery, though!
      The control circuits in power plants of the 1920s to 1960s/70s were not vulnerable to cyber attacks!

      If today’s power plants were running off CP/M or MP/M machines, RS232-variants and serial terminals, they couldn’t be hacked easily via internet since no exploits could be installed, no network stack could be hacked..

      Not through a simple (and optionally encryption) terminal connection.
      Let’s just remember X.25 networks of the past.
      They were good the way they were.

      Why can’t society just to “downgrade” here?
      It would be an upgrade, actually.

      1. Dumb controls are not immune to bugs or cascade failures – **poorly planned** and **badly secured** connected infrastructure is a bad idea but the problems are not novel and the solutions are known, they just cost more than hanging a consumer-grade modem on the end of a line with some cheap hardware and cobbled-together software.

  1. Thank you for preparing this video. As someone who has more than 50 years of experience designing and operating high voltage power systems, I’m happy to see a video as clear and concise as this one is.

    Electric utilities operate the electric power grid by reacting to past events rather than by anticipating future events. If you want to record a video that anticipates the next wide area blackout, contact me and I will help.

  2. I wish Grady could have done a longer piece on this. Someone needs to give him a large check and a production team.

    Stupid YouTube needs to give me the notifications I signed up for. I’ve watched every video he’s posted, subscribed, liked, clicked the dang bell, and selected all. Still I don’t get the notifications.

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