Anniversary of Northeast Blackout of 2003 reminds us how precarious the grid is

(Above: New Yorkers cross the Queensboro Bridge on foot after the 2003 blackout disrupted subway service)

One thing leads to another. The beatings of butterfly wings can magnify into a hurricane. Snowballs roll into avalanches.

Or something like that. Not to get all metaphysical about it, but as Luke the physician wrote, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” And the reverse can be true, too.

Thirteen years ago this month, we learned that little things matter greatly when it comes to electricity delivery. Hard to believe, looking back, that the Northeast Blackout of 2003 started on a warm August afternoon with a single transmission line sagging down to touch a single overgrown tree line. One monitoring device failed to send warning signals. Sounds inconsequential, but then nothing really is on this interconnected glory called the North American power grid.

Ultimately 55 million people lost service, some for a few hours and some for two days. Ohio was disconnected from Pennsylvania, Michigan from Ontario, New York from New England. Eleven people died because the power wasn’t there to keep them alive according to that day’s need.

“We are a superpower with a third-world electrical grid,” then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former energy secretary under President Clinton, said at the time. A line network first taking shape around the start of the 20th century was ill-prepared to deal with the re-routing burdens of a localized system breakdown 100 years later.

Some could have accused Richardson of playing politics, but this was no partisan swipe.

Think back: America was still reeling from the shock of Sept. 11, 2001 and we had yet to face the horrors in New Orleans two years later. The sturdy, resilient America we thought we knew seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Some say it still is.

The electric industry surely responded with vigor to the challenges announced by the Northeast Blackout. The North American Electric Reliability Council was certified to develop higher standards. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 furthered our re-investment goals, although many discount that commitment. Three years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a D+ grade for its energy infrastructure. It’s not technically a failing grade, but it won’t get you into Harvard, that’s for sure.

What have we done since the Northeaster electrical storm blew in like a lamb and went out like a lion? An upcoming story in next week’s Electric Light & Power Executive Digest will remind us just how quickly and surprisingly the proverbial butterfly rushed up into a Named Storm of system shutdowns.

Could it happen again? Hopefully not but certainly possible. One thing leads to another unless you catch it in the nick of time.


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