Blackout 2003 Revisited
January 21, 2008
Many of us have tucked the 2003 Blackout behind us like a bad dream. With the news this weekend that hackers are making serious inroads toward bringing down the power grid, it behooves us to remember how ugly a prolonged power outage can be.
Shortly after noon, in sweltering August heat, an Eastlake, Ohio power plant couldn't handle the high demand and collapsed under the load. Extra power coursed through FirstEnergy's Hanna-Juniper lines, heated the wires and caused them to sag into a tree and trip. More Ohio plants winked offline.
By 4pm, the transmission problems were still contained in Ohio but had spread across the state.
At 4:09 central Michigan's Kinder Morgan plant went down and then all bets were off. Literally, in the next one minute, the massive blackout shot throughout the Northeast and southeastern Canada.
The official joint Canadian-U.S. report stated that strained power lines went out of service when they came in contact with "overgrown trees."
Official reports from the office of Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chrétien stated that lightning had struck a northern New York power plant resulting in a cascading power grid failure. New York denied this saying the outage didn't start in the U.S.
Canada's Defense Minister John McCallum blamed the outage at a Pennsylvania nuke plant and New York's Governor George Pataki put the blame back on Canada.
Whatever! The result was this:
As many as 265 power plants succumbed to the cascading effect leaving at least 10,000,000 people in Canada and 40,000,000 in the U.S. without electricity. Some households and businesses didn't not get power back on for six very long days. This laid the groundwork for the largest blackout in North American history.
It is unnerving to think this could be a small event compared to what hackers are trying to accomplish.
For this and other recent reasons of power disruption, we strongly encourage every person to purchase a household generator.
This can be an intimidating task unless you know what to look for in a generator, understand how big a unit is required based on the appliances you want to use, how much 'juice' do appliances need, what safeguards must be considered, how do you correctly hook up and maintain a unit? What kind of generator should you consider? What size? Diesel or gas? Can you use an extension cord and what are the safe cord sizes? How much power loss can you expect with an extension cord? How do I safely store fuel? What is its shelf life and how can you 'revive old, dead fuel'? These and many more generator questions are answered in Dare To Prepare.
The 2003 Blackout disrupted nearly every aspect of life and 9 people died in the power outage.
Photo: Tamara Andrews waited out the power failure on her stoop in Park Slope in Brooklyn with her neighbor Jenny Peters, left, and her daughters. (Andrea Mohin)
Photo: The switch yard at New York's Niagara Project became useless metalwork when the blackout struck. The lack of power sent office workers streaming into the humid 90-degree streets. (AP / David Duprey)
Photo Top: commuters sleep on the steps of the Post Office on 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue in New York during the early hours of Aug. 15, 2003 after being stranded by the city's electrical blackout. (AP)
Photo Bottom: Subways riders were trapped.
Photo: In New York, Tomas Andreda (left) of Queens and Nancy Acosta (center) contact family from a bank of pay phones, as lines form behind them. (AP / Frank Franklin II)
Photo: Pedestrians in New York cross 6th Avenue at 50th Street after a power outage disabled traffic lights. (AP / Frank Franklin II)
THE GRID TODAY - LESSONS IGNORED
Even after the massive blackouts of 2003, 1977 and 1965, the national power grid remains in fragile, vulnerable condition. Energy spokespeople state investments of $56 to $450 billion is needed to fix this antiquated system. While the Congress is busy giving themselves raises, wasting money on pork barrel spending, squandering taxpayer funds on mismanaged albatrosses like FEMA and black projects and being bamboozled by countless fraud schemes, it will be a long time before Americans see a critically-needed grid fix.
The national power grid has grown like a maze of interdependent tentacles where a small localized problem can mushroom into catastrophe. Over the decades, instead of making smaller, separate systems, they've simply strung together more central plants and wires making large portions of the power system vulnerable. Only Texas has exercised foresight to keep its power grid self-contained.
A torrent of solution papers have been penned peppered with phrases like "we should..." and "we need to..." but nothing has been done. Remedies cost huge dollars and government snarls many projects in red tape.
STOP GAP MEASURES
If you don't have money for a complete solar / wind system which can set you back up to $50K, consider purchasing a generator. They are affordable, you can store enough fuel for at least a month's operation and they can make miserable circumstances bearable.
Photo: Traffic is escorted westbound along Highway 87 from High Island to Gilchrist past downed power lines damaged by Hurricane Humberto in September 2007. (Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle)
Even 'normal-strength' hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms and heat waves have hit the power grid. These events have kept people in the dark for up to two weeks. Increasingly violent weather extremes are bringing more intense storms. What will stronger events bring?
Solar cycle 24 has just started which is expected to be of super strength. Geomagnetic storms have caused blackouts before. You have only to ask 6,000,000 Canadians about the Sun-caused power outage in March 1989. The G-5 solar storm knocked out the entire Hydro Quebec power grid for nine hours and destroyed two transformers on the New Jersey power utility grid. Damage to the grids was estimated at $30 million with overall losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now there is the growing threat of terrorism. With nearly 500,000 miles of bulk transmission lines in the U.S., it is nearly impossible to monitor and protect all of these lines. With declassified information that hackers are making practice runs in other countries to bring down their power grids, how long will it be before someone penetrates our system? Then it's light out depending on where and serious is the damage.
Circumstances have forced Stan and I to use our generators both here and in Australia. They have been a lifesaver. Neighbors are gradually catching on seeing us comfortable and operating normally - whether it's keeping warm in winter or cool in a heatwave - and have also purchased generators. Will you be ready? Like storing food and water, it's cheap insurance.
Source for 2003 blackout: Wikipedia, news articles archives