The wacky winter weather we’ve been having lately has led to the phenomenon of ice storms and resultant power failures in places such as Arkansas and Texas that seldom see them. As readers of this blog are aware, I had a pretty nasty experience recently with a four-day power failure myself, and so I can relate and commiserate.
The power failures caused by ice storms are understandable: the usual mechanism is that heavy ice weighs down the trees, which fall on the wires and collapse them. The damage can be widespread if the storm covers a wide area. But essentially, it’s a local phenomenon.
The great power blackout of 1965 was a very different animal indeed. I recall it quite well; it involved most of the northeast United States, with twenty-five million losing power in a cascade of events stemming from a single failure in an isolated spot in Canada.
Such a thing wasn’t supposed to be able to happen. But it did:
The cause of the failure was human error that happened days before the blackout, when maintenance personnel incorrectly set a protective relay on one of the transmission lines between the Niagara generating station Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2 in Queenston, Ontario and Southern Ontario. Instead of the relay being set to trip and protect the line if the flow of power exceeded the line’s capacity, it was set for a much lower value.
As was common on a cold November evening, power for heating, lighting and cooking was pushing the electrical system to near its peak capacity, and the transmission lines heading into Southern Ontario were heavily loaded. At 5:16 p.m. Eastern Time a small surge of power coming from Lewiston, New York’s Robert Moses generating plant caused the misset relay to trip at far below the line’s rated capacity, disabling a main power line heading into Southern Ontario. Within seconds, the power that was flowing on the tripped line transferred to the other lines, causing them to become overloaded. Their protective relays, which are designed to protect the line if it became overloaded, tripped, isolating Adam Beck from all of Southern Ontario.
With no place else to go, the excess power from Beck then switched direction and headed east over the interconnected lines into New York State, overloading them as well and isolating the power generated in the Niagara region from the rest of the interconnected grid. The Beck and Moses generators, with no outlet for their power, were automatically shut down to prevent damage. Within five minutes the power distribution system in the northeast was in chaos as the effects of overloads and loss of generating capacity cascaded through the network, breaking it up into “islands”. Plant after plant experienced load imbalances and automatically shut down.
In that power failure and other subsequent ones, the problem was caused by a mechanism designed to protect the system: the interconnectedness of its parts. It may be stretching a metaphor almost to the breaking point, but the current financial crisis that began last fall reminds me a bit of those huge power failures.
How? The problems in the mortgage sector were bound up, bundled, derivatived (is that a word?), tranched, and seeded throughout the entire system. This was supposed to reduce the risk by spreading it around. But in the end it only guaranteed that the infection would affect even banks and institutions that were otherwise solvent. And the interconnectedness of the entire financial world guaranteed that the problem would not be kept to one country.