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When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (mit.edu)
46 points by anarbadalov 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 7 comments



Ctrl+F "Enron" - I was surprised not to see it mentioned with respect to blackouts in the US. They had a huge role in California's blackouts in 2000-01. [0]

The story of Enron is fascinating, and there's a great documentary on it, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room". [1]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enron#California's_deregulatio...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enron:_The_Smartest_Guys_in_th...


I've written about one of those that I got caught up in:

https://jacquesmattheij.com/a-world-without-power/


A distributed system like a power grid needs to be __fault tolerant__. It's impractical to protect every portion of it, to have maximum security everywhere. Instead built in redundancy (reliability paths), monitoring (read only, but remote sites can react), and automated responses that validate and mitigate failure modes should be the goals.

Also, the article fails to conceptualize how little resources might be required to cause actual disruption. A bomb might cause a lot of damage on it's own if lobbed in to a substation or a transformer yard at a power plant, but some common conductive cable and a javelin in a potato launcher cross my mind as a ghetto version of the military device mentioned knocking out most of a nations power grid.


"Operation Outward was a British World War II program to attack Germany by means of free-flying balloons. It made use of cheap, simple balloons filled with hydrogen. They carried either a trailing steel wire intended to damage high voltage power lines by producing a short circuit..."

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Outward


A local short circuit may overload the system, and trip some circuit breakers. But then those breakers can be flipped back on. To really destroy a power grid, you need mother nature.

I remember the great ice storm of 1998. Huge amounts of freezing rain coated transmission lines with inches of ice, and the weight toppled hundreds of pylons in the Montreal area. The metropolis and the region South were without power for weeks. And it was January. And Montreal gets brutally cold at that time of the year.

Perversely, you need electricity to run a fuel oil house furnace.

Some people were without it for a month. We wanted to buy a generator for my mother in law, who lived South of Montreal. We lived in New Jersey. We went to the local home depot and bought the last one. The people behind us in line at the store were from Montreal. There were no generators left in the stores from Montreal to new Jersey.

See "January 1998 North American ice storm"


The grid was built and operated on n minus 1 redundancy. Any single transmission line or substation transformer can fail and there should not be an outage. But if the other transformer in the same substation fails then you are in the dark. Underinvestment has also led to a loss of redundancy: the substation or redundant transmission path operates over 50% capacity some of the time.

Building power lines takes a lot of land, a long time, and is expensive. Redundancy and excess capacity is going to decrease. The system will continue to become less reliable.


> Any single transmission line or substation transformer can fail and there should not be an outage.

That is not always correct. There are numerous radial lines where the failure of a single transmission line caused numerous downstream substations and customers to experience outages...also, not every substation has 2 transmission/distribution Xfmrs with a Tie...I've seen numerous substations with only 1 Xfmr.

> Redundancy and excess capacity is going to decrease. The system will continue to become less reliable.

You're absolutely correct on this point...




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