Blackout Anniversary Parade
BY Chris Bilton  /  August 15, 2008

TORONTO – “Where were you when the lights went out?” There’s about 100-150 of us amassed in front of Central Tech as local jazzer-about-town Richard Underhill leads the crowd through a few refrains of this tune, which he’s written for the fifth anniversary of the Big Blackout. It’s nearly 9pm, and the extensive horn section, goth-punk circus performers, costumed eccentrics, fire dancer, Streets Are for People enthusiasts, photobloggers, filmmakers and random curious citizens have just been joined by a legion of Critical Mass cyclists, all ringing bells and post-ride glow.

We’re waiting for the go code — the word from on high. We’re waiting for a man in a full Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey Mouse costume to lead us on a quest to reclaim the intersection of Bloor and Spadina in celebration of that one impossible day when Toronto (and most of the eastern seaboard) went dark.

The crowd has been growing steadily since the scheduled 8pm meet-up time. With a number of community groups participating — the aforementioned Streets Are for People and Critical Mass, along with Newmindspace, Reclaim the Streets, Drummers in Exile, Take the Tooker, Bike Pirates (you get the idea) — the word is out and everyone is in great spirits.

Even when I first arrived and people started getting calls about a huge storm over Dufferin Street, everyone seemed to be trying to ignore the impending doom-rain by watching the sky melt through a few layers of threatening hues: orange, rust, blood. The massive bursts of lightning that scraped across the westward Bathurst skyline at unreal angles elicit much cheering and awe. It’s almost as electric as the pent up energy of a crowd of people preparing to illegally parade though the main street of Canada’s biggest city.

Chatting with people as we wait, most were in the city for North America’s biggest power outage. The few who were out of the area say they were sorry to have missed it — I guess this is one disaster that qualified as being pretty fun.  One guy recounts how he was off that day hanging out in a park when all of a sudden scores of people started showing up and having picnics. It took him a little while to realize what was going on. I, like many people, was working that day and delighted in being set free well before my shift at a Queen Street home-furnishings shop was due to end. I still remember just hanging out on the curb with the rest of the staff and chatting with passersby, trying to piece together what was going on and what it all meant.

At 9pm, Mickey Mouse (who is actually Streets Are for People’s Shamez Amlani) gives the crowd its final instructions: the parade will creep along Sussex Street and up Robert. “And then when we hit Bloor, the shit busts open wide.”

As we begin to March and the crowd stretches out like a many-celled organism, I try to gauge just how many people are out here. We are rounding corners and Sussex Street is appropriately dark, but I can see people peering out their windows, shocked that the strange noise out on their quiet residential street is actually a parade in progress. I’m surprised that more of them don’t come down and join in. I mean, who wouldn’t want to join a seemingly random late-night parade?

As soon as Bloor Street is in sight, the big whoop-up begins. Underhill (pictured above) leads the band through a wicked Mingus-styled jam on his “Where were you?” theme, which works perfectly for the oddball ensemble now comprised of djembes, bagpipes, a percussion corps and a considerably expanded version of the Kensington Horns.

We overtake Bloor and Spadina for about 15 minutes. There’s so much dancing and drumming that it’s hard to decide what to do. A picnic table supporting a kiddie pool full of water is now a dancing station for three girls and a hose. Shamez/Mickey is scurrying around the intersection setting up pylons to divert the traffic. A bunch of young maple trees are posted around the perimeter. Eventually the police show up, but it’s already speech time and Shamez is explaining that we just demonstrated that this intersection could be a piazza with a fountain where people could hang out.

The intersection is clear within minutes and the crowd either disperses or joins up with the not-so-silent Street Rave beside the domino sculpture in the Art Park. I manage to corner Shamez for a few minutes to get his thoughts on the evening. “It went off without a hitch,” he says, “although we couldn’t get all the streetlights off. But this is fun and quirky. That’s why the costume: you can’t put handcuffs on these big mitts.”

“For a brief 10 minutes a hole opened up in the space-time continuum,” he says, explaining that it’s wrong to think that this intersection is static and can’t be changed. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a park where people can fall in love and hang out. The subway is still running below us. “Cars have enough streets,” he adds. “We need more streets for people.” If ever there was an appropriate occasion for thinking outside the urban box, the blackout certainly qualifies. If only we could make Aug. 14 some kind of civic holiday.



A Proposal for the Adoption of the Blackout as a Holiday

“In Berlin there is a blown up church you drive by everyday, still there from World War 2. They kept it there as a reminder of the time we bombed Berlin. It is a powerful, lucid monument to a complicated era of history. The reason we can reach no satisfying solution as to how to
memorialize Ground Zero is because we tore it down already. The shards were beautiful, like a tree struck by lightning, a natural and perfect horribly sordid shape. We should have kept it. Had we been braver, or more honest, we would have. Instead we treated it like vandalism, and cleaned it off. Any memorial at Ground Zero will never quite satisfy without it. Anyway, we feel we do not memorialize enough and it is in this spirit we call to formalize, as a holiday, the August 14 Blackout.

It could be our version of Carnival, and we could use one. It requires no municipal support. We as a people could simply do it. A harmless ritual: You come home from work, or wherever, switch off your circuit breakers, and that’s all, it begins. It is not a debauchery, not a wild night, but perhaps a free one. Free of the system, free of the machine, free of the exhaustive burdens of ambition. Free of electricity, and the 24 hours a day you-don’t-stop that goes with it. There was a time, before electricity, when people simply retired at night. What else could you do? It was dark. Not anymore. Progress has its compromise. The blackout took us back to the basics, of who we are as human beings, with none of this shine and polish to distract us from the truth.

As with anything good, the blackout as a holiday would be optional; none of the hospitals must shut down, no vital services would close. No one must do anything. But for those who can do it, and wish to, the blackout offers a pre-existing holiday so simple to celebrate there is almost no reason not to. Every August 14 we could easily stage a re-enactment of the largest-known naturally-occurring party in the history of the human race. The city went dark that night and 10 million people did not flip out or riot, or conduct themselves in any way sinister or foul. Newscasters were amazed at how peaceful it was. What we did do is get giddily drunk; we danced in the streets, we opened the hydrants, we made love on rooftops, we handed out sushi and ice cream. Enterprising restaurants will repeat this last aspect; bars will sell dollar beers, and those that do will remain beloved for their unnecessary generosity. Kindness, we have seen, is good business. The blackout instinctively reminded us, for it was in living memory, of our city’s experience during the weeks following 9/11. Everyone was kind to each other, thoughtful, considerate. You didn’t know which stranger passing by had had someone close to them die, and all normal modes of self segregation collapsed. With no real alternative, we were just kind to everyone. We were beautiful. We were as we would want to be, and as we would want others to be to us, if there weren’t so much wearying over-complicated bullshit to wear down our decency. We were not competitive; we all pulled together, looked out for each other, reached out. We held communion. This is a worthwhile sentiment to exercise, periodically.

And the blackout brought this out it us, instinctively, collectively, again. Do you remember how it felt? You could see stars in midtown. It was giddy and magical, like a snow day. It is in remembrance of this remarkable spirit that we advocate and endorse the unofficial popular acceptance of August 14 as the purely optional — but just fucking beautiful — New York citywide recreational blackout, an unequaled holiday opportunity. Flip the switch, and enjoy.”


The 2003 Northeast Blackout–Five Years Later
Tougher regulatory measures are in place, but we’re still a long way from a “smart” power grid
BY J.R. Minkel  /  August 13, 2008

On August 14, 2003, shortly after 2 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down—a fault, as it’s known in the power industry. The line had softened under the heat of the high current coursing through it. Normally, the problem would have tripped an alarm in the control room of FirstEnergy Corporation, an Ohio-based utility company, but the alarm system failed. Over the next hour and a half, as system operators tried to understand what was happening, three other lines sagged into trees and switched off, forcing other power lines to shoulder an extra burden. Overtaxed, they cut out by 4:05 P.M., tripping a cascade of failures throughout southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. All told, 50 million people lost power for up to two days in the biggest blackout in North American history. The event contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion.

So, five years later, are we still at risk for a massive blackout? In February 2004, after a three-month investigation, the U.S.–Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded that a combination of human error and equipment failures had caused the blackout. The group’s final report made a sweeping set of 46 recommendations to reduce the risk of future widespread blackouts. First on the list was making industry reliability standards mandatory and legally enforceable. Prior to the blackout, the North American Electricity Reliability Council (NERC) set voluntary standards. In the wake of the blackout report, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which expanded the role of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by requiring it to solicit, approve and enforce new reliability standards from NERC, now the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation.

FERC has so far approved 96 new reliability standards.* These cover the three Ts—”trees, training and tools”—identified by the blackout task force but are not limited to them, says Joseph McClelland, director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, which was established last September. Standard PER-003, for example, requires that operating personnel have at least the minimum training needed to recognize and deal with critical events in the grid; standard FAC-003 makes it mandatory to keep trees clear of transmission lines; standard TOP-002-1 requires that that grid operating systems be able to survive a power line fault or any other single failure, no matter how severe. FERC can impose fines of up to a million dollars a day for an infraction, depending on its flagrancy and the risk incurred. If the standards have reduced the number of blackouts, the evidence has yet to bear it out. A study of NERC blackout data by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that the frequency of blackouts affecting more than 50,000 people has held fairly constant at about 12 per year from 1984 to 2006. Co-author Paul Hines, now assistant professor of engineering at the University of Vermont in Burlington, says current statistics indicate that a 2003-level blackout will occur every 25 years.

He says many researchers believe that cascading blackouts may be inherent in the grid’s complexity, but he still sees room for improvement. “I think we can definitely make it less frequent than once every 25 years.” The U.S. power grid consists of three loosely connected parts, referred to as interconnections: eastern, western and Texas. Within each, high-voltage power lines transmit electricity from generating sources such as coal or hydroelectric plants to local utilities that distribute power to homes and businesses, where lights, refrigerators, computers and myriad other “loads” tap that energy. Because electricity in power lines cannot be stored, generation and load have to match up at all times or the grid enters blackout territory. That can result from a lack of generating capacity—the cause of the 2000 California blackouts—or because of one or more faults, as in the 2003 blackout. The interconnectedness of the grid makes it easier to compensate for local variations in load and generation but it also gives blackouts a wider channel over which to spread.

Transmission system operators scattered across some 300 control centers nationwide monitor voltage and current data from SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems placed at transformers, generators and other critical points. Power engineers monitor the data looking for signs of trouble and, ideally, communicate with one another to stay abreast of important changes. One of the realizations since 2003 is that “you can’t just look at your system. You’ve got to look at how your system affects your neighbors and vice versa,” says Arshad Mansoor, vice president of power delivery and utilization with the Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif.

Until recently, there was no one place to view information from across the grid. McClelland says FERC is working with industry and other government agencies to pull data into a prototype coast-to-coast real-time monitoring system at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. “We have put the system together and it is functional,” he says, although “some parts are better than others”: FERC has full coverage of the western U.S. and good information from the Southeast, he says, but data from Texas and other areas is still spotty. Gathering the data is only the beginning. The holy grail is a smart grid capable of monitoring and repairing itself, similar to the way air traffic control systems are used to coordinate aircraft routes. Mansoor says that dream is still a good 20 years away because it depends on better data, a reliable communications network and computer programs capable of making decisions based on the data.

One promising tool for collecting better data is called a phasor measurement unit (PMU), which measures voltage and current on power lines and uses GPS (global positioning system) connections to time-stamp its data down to the microsecond. That level of resolution across a network of PMUs could reveal an important electrical property of power lines called phase, which tells whether power generators are rotating in sync with respect to one another, Hines says. When a blackout approaches, that difference, called the phase, is believed to grow rapidly. “A lot of people have conjectured that if we could have seen that the [phase] distance between generators was increasing [on August 14, 2003], we could have prevented the blackout,” Hines says.

There are currently about 100 PMUs installed in the eastern
interconnection, up from zero in 2003, as part of the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative based at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. “We still need a couple of hundred more [PMUs] to get a full coverage,” Mansoor says, but he adds that they are already helping local utilities diagnose the causes of blackouts much faster than they could before. Another challenge for keeping the grid balanced is the growing demand for electricity—increasing load, in other words—as consumers buy more computers, air conditioners and rechargeable handhelds. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration projects a load growth of 1.05 percent a year from now until 2030, which means transmission capacity will have to keep pace.

The main obstacle to building new transmission lines is siting, better known as the “not in my backyard” effect: Nobody wants power lines near them. One potential way of getting around that is so-called smart metering—hourly readouts of electricity usage that allow utilities to offer price discounts on power during off-peak times. Pilot smart-metering programs are under way in Idaho, California and other states. Mansoor notes that advanced metering tools might become useful given the potential for increasingly intermittent power sources. Wind power, for example, stops and starts with the breeze, which means system operators would have to adjust the load to compensate. Although wind energy accounts for 19.5 gigawatts of power in the U.S., or less than 2 percent of total power generation, it represented 35 percent of new generating capacity installed in 2007, up from 5 percent in 2003.

An alternative to power lines in cities and other urban areas is power cables based on high-temperature superconductor (HTS) technology. When chilled to –321 degrees Fahrenheit (77 kelvins, or –196 degrees Celsius) the composite material yttrium barium copper oxide begins to carry a current with almost zero resistance. HTS power cables can therefore be made smaller than the copper kind. In a concept called the secure supergrid,  would bolster existing transmission lines and would resist the stresses that can cause blackouts, because the lines shut down when the current spikes (reflecting the “almost” in an HTS cable’s “almost zero resistance”). Some researchers have proposed combining an HTS supergrid with a coast-to-coast hydrogen pipeline to suppy fuel cells for cars and homes.

The Long Island Power Authority switched on a $50-million, 69-kilovolt HTS system in April to supply power to up to 300,000 homes. Consolidated Edison Company of New York and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have commissioned cables for a $40-million supergrid system in downtown Manhattan known as Project Hydra, scheduled for operation in 2010. None of these tools would guarantee the extinction of large blackouts. When researchers study very complex systems, whether they be power grids or sandpiles, they often find a simple relationship: The frequency of larger and larger catastrophes—such as blackouts or avalanches—remains relatively high. “If you look at all the steps that have been taken since 2003, I think overall the risk is less today than it was in 2003,” Mansoor says. “But the risk is always there.”