Power Outages

by Kieran Healy on August 14, 2003

Just catching the news about the power outage in New York and — reportedly — also in a number of major cities along the east coast, up into Canada and even into the midwest. I wonder why this is happening, especially if the early reports of outages in other major cities are accurate. Apart from the obvious (but I imagine unlikely) explanation that we all don’t want to jump to because we’re responsible people, the other thing that springs to mind is the network structure of the national grid. This is a topic of which I of course know nothing. But in his book Small Worlds I seem to remember (it’s a pain not having access to my library) that Duncan Watts has a discussion of power grids and the potential for serious cascading failures under certain conditions. The idea is that small failures can spread rapidly through networks with the right properties. Here’s the Google cache of one of his working papers on this topic, that treats power grids as a sample case. I wonder if this is what’s happened.

I guess I’ll just have to keep watching the news (like all the other bloggers who are reminded of their dependency on primary media sources).

Update: CNN is now reporting that the Niagara/Mohawk power grid may have become overloaded and then failed. Score one for CT analysts over that jumpy guy on CNBC that I just saw. He was clearly hoping for terrorists. You could see the hungry gleam in his eye. So, although the Sociology Department isn’t at the top of your list of places to call for comment on events like this, someone should give Watts a ring. Except they can’t, because, um, he teaches at Columbia and there’s a blackout.



Richard 08.14.03 at 10:05 pm

A power station in Niagara’s gone down, I’m told by my friendly tame futures trader.


Scott Martens 08.14.03 at 10:17 pm

CBC Ottawa is reporting that the Niagara grid failed due to an overload – it’s been a hot day. Web traffic is way, way down.


novalis 08.14.03 at 10:20 pm

The phones are still working, so they can call Watts — a friend called me from NYC to see what was up.


Tom Runnacles 08.15.03 at 12:34 am

My brother, who is based in NYC, reports that there’s a risk that the city’s bars may run out of cold beer. This begins to sound serious.


Daragh McDowell 08.15.03 at 1:06 pm

Latest news is that it was a plant in Michigan. The Niagra generators remained operational throughout the blackout, as the HEP structure with 13 independent generators allows it to weather power dips. Power returned to us out here on Long Island at 6 O’Clock this morning, and seems to be gradually creeping back through NYC. It was’t terrorists, but I have to say in the hour or two before any of us out here were able to get any reliable news it was pretty terrifying. I saw jet streams from what I can only presume where either planes returning to runways, or National Guard fighters being scrambled (emergency troops I believe were in place in critical areas around the city, just in case) and I was trying desperately to get a hold of family outside the country to see if they had any idea what was going on. It was a crazy one.


Shai 08.15.03 at 5:27 pm

my power just turned back on 15 minutes ago (crosses fingers). i was on teh subway when it turned off but was close enough to the next stop that it was only a 5 minute walk. i feel sorry for the old people tho. i then rollerbladed 30km because the traffic was pretty bad.

other than 35 people arrested for looting in toronto, wasn’t that bad. they had helicopters flying around last night, presumably to watch for people doing things they shouldnt have been. then there were offduty cops on the corner of every intersection directing traffic.

later in the day i went to see if i could get some d batteries for my radio and they were all out. there werent any baskets cuz the store was packed with people who were panicking and buying tons of crap. i just thought of it as a day not to use my computer and get some reading done. the power company in my area are either morons or penny pinchers so it has been out for 8 hours before


Shai 08.15.03 at 7:24 pm

Actually I just got up to speed, so a few corrections:

(1) the people directing traffic without uniform were actually just regular people who thought it was a good idea, not off duty cops.

(2) re the looting:

“In Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, home to about four million people, there were 38 arrests linked to the power outage, said constable Mike Hayes, a city police spokesman.

Most of the arrests were for smash-and-grab incidents or looting of stores, he said, adding, “We are doing pretty well.”

In Ottawa, the federal capital, police reported just two arrests, but had 115 reports of alarms being activated, including 26 at stores, said police spokesman Leo Janveau, who acknowledged 22 looting incidents.”


j 08.20.03 at 8:56 am

It was inevitable, that insights about electrical blackout would be made by someone named Watts .. :)

Comments on this entry are closed.