The South American Power Outage That Plunged 48 Million Into Blackout

A massive power outage in South America last month left most of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay in the dark and may also have impacted small portions of Chile and Brazil. It’s estimated that 48 million people were affected and as of this writing there has still been no official explanation of how a blackout of this magnitude occurred.

While blackouts of some form or another are virtually guaranteed on any power grid, whether it’s from weather events, accidental damage to power lines and equipment, lightning, or equipment malfunctioning, every grid will eventually see small outages from time to time. The scope of this one, however, was much larger than it should have been, but isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility for systems that are this complex.

Initial reports on June 17th cite vague, nondescript possible causes but seem to focus on transmission lines connecting population centers with the hydroelectric power plant at Yacyretá Dam on the border of Argentina and Paraguay, as well as some ongoing issues with the power grid itself. Problems with the transmission line system caused this power generation facility to become separated from the rest of the grid, which seems to have cascaded to a massive power failure. One positive note was that the power was restored in less than a day, suggesting at least that the cause of the blackout was not physical damage to the grid. (Presumably major physical damage would take longer to repair.) Officials also downplayed the possibility of cyber attack, which is in line with the short length of time that the blackout lasted as well, although not completely out of the realm of possibility.

This incident is exceptionally interesting from a technical point-of-view as well. Once we rule out physical damage and cyber attack, what remains is a complete failure of the grid’s largely automatic protective system. This automation can be a force for good, where grid outages can be restored quickly in most cases, but it can also be a weakness when the automation is poorly understood, implemented, or maintained. A closer look at some protective devices and strategies is warranted, and will give us greater insight into this problem and grid issues in general. Join me after the break for a look at some of the grid equipment that is involved in this system.

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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.

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LED Ice Cubes Prevent Alcohol Induced Blackouts

cube

On November 23rd last year, [Dhairya] attended a little shindig at MIT. Three drinks into the night, he blacked out and woke up in the hospital the next day. It was an alcohol-induced blackout, and like all parties at MIT, there’s an ingenious solution to [Dhairya]’s problem.

[Dhairya] came up with an alcohol-aware ice cube made of a coin cell battery, an ATtiny microcontroller, and an IR transceiver are molded into an edible gelatin ice cube. The microcontroller counts the number of sips per drink, and after one glass of adult beverage changes the color of the flashing LED from green to yellow. After two drinks the LED changes from yellow to red, signaling [Dhairya] to slow down.

If [Dhairya] feels the night is too young and keeps on drinking, the IR transmitter signals to his cell phone to send a text to a friend telling them to go take [Dhairya] home.

Less than three weeks after waking up in the hospital, [Dhairya] tested out his glowing ice cubes at another party. Everything performed wonderfully, even if he admits his creation is a little crude. A neat piece of work, and we can’t wait to see an update to this project.

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