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Deregulation and Niagara Mohawk - Is There a Story? 1074

Posted by jamie
from the distributed-journalism dept.
It's just a few hours after the Northeast U.S. power outage, and facts are trickling in; as of right now, it looks like an accidental overload knocked out a large part of the Niagara Mohawk power grid. A few years ago, California went through rolling blackouts that were largely due to a poorly-executed deregulation of that state's power industry. The question that's probably occurring to many of us is, did late-'90s deregulation play a role in today's power event? I don't know the answer, so I'm turning it over to you -- moderators, please check links and up-mod the most informative, pro or con. Here is some information to get you started: "We support deregulation 100 percent..." (N-M spokesman, 1997; notes N-M wanted to sell generators and "concentrate on the transmission and distribution of energy" -- did it?); N-M made some bad investments and is scheduled to request a rate hike (did it?); and N-M's own website says: "Deregulation [has] changed the laws and regulations governing the electricity industry to promote competition..." (how so?).
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Deregulation and Niagara Mohawk - Is There a Story?

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  • by mjmalone (677326) * on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:15PM (#6701098) Homepage
    I don't see how this has to do with deregulation. It has more to do with poor design of the power infrastructure. From what I have heard, the way the power grid works is there are switching stations which link various networks together much like a router on a lan. When one switching station goes down, for whatever reason, there are fail safe systems which move affected areas over to other switches.

    What can happen is, if all stations are working at or near capacity and a part of the network goes down for whatever reason (fire, or too much power being drawn for example) then when power is routed from the other switching stations they become overburdened as well and there is a ripple effect of outages across the grid.

    When this occurs, power companies have to be careful when bringing power back online as they may become overburdened again as soon as they become operational. The U.S. power grid has become extremely complicated and vulnerable as it has scaled. Fail safe systems often fail in their fail safe components.

    Regarding the rolling blackouts in California, they had more to do with Enron witholding power than with deregulation. I have not researched deregulation sufficiently so I can't really argue for or against it, but blaming everything on it is not helpful.
    • by antirename (556799) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:20PM (#6701158)
      So far this is an isolated event... it looks more like an accident than the result of bad policies (CA deregulated power, refused to construct new power plants, signed some dumb deals, etc.). The parent post is correct about ripple effects. Everly system has potention bottlenecks/points of failure, and it sounds like one of those went down and overloaded the rest. No clear place to point fingers yet... if there is place to put the blame, CNN hasn't found it yet :)
      • by arivanov (12034) on Friday August 15, 2003 @09:58AM (#6705382) Homepage
        It is a result of american dislike of mathematics and long term scientific projects.

        You cannot replace mathematics with elementary computer control systems based on simple feedback. That is the reality. And the american power blackouts are one of the common illustrations given in mathematical modeling classes in most of Europe of why simple feedback systems fail.

        After the big blackout of the sixties every single European country has put this task to their universities and/or specilized institutes. In all cases it was given to mathematicians, not engineers (or ended up with the mathematicians after the engineers failed).

        I happen know some the people who did the modelling in three countries. It took anything between 7 and 11 years to come up with viable models as well as analysis of viable failure scenarios. The scenarious have been rolled out by the 80-90-es so we are talking 20+ development and deployment cycle.

        As a result you simply cannot take out the grid like this in any European country unless the country has grown complacent and has stopped updating the models to account for change in power usage patterns.

    • by TedCheshireAcad (311748) <ted.fc@rit@edu> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:21PM (#6701172) Homepage
      Oh God no, no power to run the computers.

      You mean I actually have to interact with people?????
      • by abe ferlman (205607) <bgtrio@NOSPAm.yahoo.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:01PM (#6701560) Homepage Journal
        Let's all have a moment of silence for all the linux and *bsd boxen whose legendary uptimes were mercilessly snuffed out by this service interruption. Some clung to their UPS's bravely until every ampere of juice had been drained.

        They will be missed, and we will build even longer uptimes to replace them.

        • by rsax (603351) on Friday August 15, 2003 @08:59AM (#6705058)
          I know that your comment was meant to be humourous but on a more serious note, perhaps this event could serve as a wake up call to all the people who needlessly consume more than they have to (Yeah right, I can hope can't I?). I know so many geeks who run non-critical computers 24/7 which are chugging along just for the fact that they want to see those high uptime numbers. We all know *BSD/Linux is stable. You don't need to suck up power (pollute more by making fossil fuel power plants work extra hard) to prove something that's already obvious.
    • by Wesley Everest (446824) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:23PM (#6701203)
      I don't know if the overload was due to deregulation, but one of the purposes of regulation is to ensure that the power company can satisfy demand, even relatively unlikely peak demand. It's possible that deregulation led to them running leaner with less margin of error for a big spike in demand.

      Add to that an unexpected increase in air-conditioner usage and there you go -- overload and outages. That's one possibility. I suppose we'll find out the facts soon enough, though.

      • by Darby (84953) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @08:01PM (#6702035)
        I suppose we'll find out the facts soon enough, though.

        Ladies and Gentlemen, we have an optomist among us.

      • by sterno (16320) on Friday August 15, 2003 @10:03AM (#6705432) Homepage
        De-regulation works well when there is a competitive marketplace and it fails utterly when there isn't. Witness the airlines for examples of both how it succeeds and fails. If you are travelling between major hubs in the US, you have multiple airlines to choose from and the price you pay is pretty low. If you are travelling between off-hub points, then you pay a premium because it's likely only one or two airlines serve that route.

        The electrical industry, much like the phone and cable industry is too dependent on the connection to the house to be truly competitive. Ultimately whoever controls the wires into the home runs the show and has a competitive (and frequently regulatory) advantage over anybody who would need to run new wires.

        There seems to be this belief that privatizing and de-regulating are magical cure alls for many problems. They aren't. If a market is naturally prone to creating uncompetitive monpolies, then neither government nor private industry will make it more efficient over the long run. Thus you are better off with government where at least the motivations are to please the citizenry rather than please the shareholders.
    • Right. What we're seeing here is a lan-storm.

      Deregulation would only help this sort of crisis, because it would be in the individual stake-holder's best interest to shield themselves from such an event.

      But, considering how rare these grid overloads are, increased deregulation would do more harm than good, because it would complicate the normal daily function, and allow price gouging at every turn, while preventing the rare outage.

      If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The previous major blackout for the area w
      • Nope, the last one was in 1977. The one BEFORE that was 1965.

      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:19PM (#6701715) Homepage
        Deregulation would only help this sort of crisis, because it would be in the individual stake-holder's best interest to shield themselves from such an event.

        Well, that's one possible outcome, but I wouldn't say only. It is also in the stake-holder's best interest to cut as many corners as possible, reducing costs and maximizing profits so they can cash in and get out before the inevitable disaster hits.

        • by dspeyer (531333) <dspeyer.wam@umd@edu> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @09:24PM (#6702581) Homepage Journal
          Or not get out.

          Seriously, I don't think the power companies have been significantly harmed here. They won't lose customers, seeing as the outage was purely geographic. All bad will is directed against the power companies equally.

          Let's face it: the only thing power companies compete on under deregulation is price. They have the same product, the same reliability, etc. This means the only viable business model is to cut every corner you can.

          But money is the one true god, and questioning deregulation is unamerican, so we don't see a problem here, right?

        • by nanojath (265940) on Friday August 15, 2003 @08:49AM (#6705013) Homepage Journal
          Concur. The myth of privatization is the myth of the "free" market in general - that competition is always and ever leading us to the best possible product at the best possible price. We all know how business actually runs. However, that doesn't necessarily mean deregulation is universally bad. I'm against it, personally, because the experience so far is that it has been implemented very poorly. But in theory, it could work - provided it is properly, pardon the irony, regulated.


          It doesn't take a genius to see how an insufficiently robust and redundant power grid and poorly implemented deregulation could be synergistic. Mmm, maybe we could start getting China-style electricity in the good ol' USA.

    • by straybullets (646076) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:28PM (#6701256)
      It has more to do with poor design of the power infrastructure

      well, bad design is linked to deregulation, since good design takes time, and deregulation wants money fast. It goes the same for taking good care of the existing installation : it costs money, and deregulation is about profit more than service.

      the true fact is that deregulation is a joke, it was well seen with the english rail system. And the joke is on us !

      • The power grid was designed and put into operation long before deregulation started.
        • by straybullets (646076) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:37PM (#6701357)
          The same for the british rail : it worked perfectly. deregulation came in and it went down in flames, late trains, dirty wagons, and dead peoples in accidents : you need to take care of the infrastructure, you need to plan for the future, and keep the whole engine running smooth.

          You can't do that if you have to keep an eye on your competitors and keep lowering the prices some more, and fire those expansive workers.

          forget what you've been told : open your eyes and think.

          • by blamanj (253811) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:28PM (#6701793)
            you need to take care of the infrastructure

            Indeed, what often happens with deregulation is that you get a lot of people who see how they can make a quick buck and who cares what happens down the road. One mechanism that could be used is to force companies that participate in these utility industries is to require a very large bond to be put up against future problems and upgrades. They now have a stake in the future. If they cut corners too much, they lose their bond, and so they're economically forced to consider the consequences of their actions.

            The other issue is that the "intersection points" need to be addressed in a similar manner. Otherwise you get the situation we have now in the DSL market where the customer gets caught between the CLECs and ILECs.
          • by Zeinfeld (263942) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:40PM (#6701882) Homepage
            The same for the british rail : it worked perfectly. deregulation came in and it went down in flames, late trains, dirty wagons, and dead peoples in accidents :

            British Rail did not work 'perfectly' by any standard - with the possible exception of the privatized service.

            The problem is not regulation, deregulation, privatization, nationalization or any of the surface reasons thrown about. The real problem is people who substitute ideology for thinking about a problem.

            The free market is not the solution to every problem. Get over it.

            The state is not the solution to every problem either. Get over it.

            There are occasions when you have to use one strategy and occasions when you have to use another. Understanding that there are potential problems with a proposed change is essential if you are going to avoid them.

            Instead what we get is politicians who use ideology as a substitute for thought. The solution to every domestic energy issue must be to drill oil wells in Alaska. The problem to every foreign policy problem must be to invade a country in the gulf with large oil reserves. The problem to every economic problem must be to give stupendous tax cuts where at least 80% but hopefully as much as is possible goes to the richest of the rich, and in particular rich Texas oil-men. One thing is certain, W. is not going to say a word about the NYC power cut until he can work out how it can be used to justify some policy to benefit Texas oil men.

            The free market is one thing, if you could establish a free market in energy that would be a great solution. The problem is that it is not possible to do that, the market is illiquid, supply and demand are constrained in certain ways. But to the ideologue these problems simply cannot exist, they don't exist in the theory so they cannot exist. Its like a robot in a bad 1960s Sci-Fi serial. So the ideologue plows ahead with a broken scheme and creates an unmitigated mess.

            That is exactly what happened with privatization of BR. There is no reason the UK rail network cannot be private, it was built entirely with private capital. But the Tory privatization plan based on the politics of sticking your head in the sand was never going to improve matters.

            • by Scratch-O-Matic (245992) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @10:08PM (#6702797)
              The first thing I did when I came to this discussion was search for 'Bush' to find out how people were going to use this event as an excuse to do some Bush bashing. When none came up, I was a bit disappointed, but I started to wade through the posts. Yours was quite sensible...at first.

              The real problem is people who substitute ideology for thinking about a problem.

              Excellent!


              The free market is not the solution to every problem. Get over it.

              The state is not the solution to every problem either. Get over it.


              Very well said, and balanced, too.

              The solution to every domestic energy issue must be to drill oil wells in Alaska. The solution to every foreign policy problem must be to invade a country in the gulf with large oil reserves.

              Oh, you lost me. You could have taken one of those, plus one of these: "The answer to every attempt at oil drilling is 'No!' The solution to every foreign policy problem, even those involving violent thugs who have no problems killing and torturing citizens and neighbors, is to talk and plead over decades," in order to sound as thoughtful as you began.

              Not everything is about Bush. Get over it.
    • by PFAK (524350) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:33PM (#6701316)
      I'm going to have to disagree with you.

      Deregulation usually ends up having the power company as a corporation, and not a Crow Corporation or such. When a power company (or any other company for that matter), has to become profitable they will cut costs, and when they are cutting costs the level of service usually falls.

      The most likely reason that this has happened is that the power companies did not want to spend as much money on the grids to maintain them, and make sure that they were in complete working order, and add more grids and upgrade their equipment -- all because of deregulation, and saving money on in the "short term".
      • Then what do you blame all the past outages on? This is not the first time large scale outages in major metropolitan areas has occured.
        • The reason that deregulation occurs is to stop these problems, so why do they still continue even after the company has been deregulated.

          There is arguements for both sides, but usually when a utility company is not deregulated, prices are cheaper, and service is better.
        • by Daetrin (576516) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:45PM (#6701429)
          Then what do you blame all the past outages on? This is not the first time large scale outages in major metropolitan areas has occured.

          The excuse for the 1965 power outage was effectively "we didn't know." Obviously they know now, so "tbey didn't care" is a plausible theory.

          Obviously the power company didn't say "Haha! We've been deregulated!" and then intentionaly pull the plug. However reduced spending on maintenance and backups could reduce the threshold at which such an event occurs.

          I don't know enough about the industry to say, but theoretically they've installed equipment [cmpco.com] since 1965 that should theoretically prevent occurances such as this. Why didn't those systems operate as intended? Was the overload just too big to prevent, or were they not installed or maintained properly?

          • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris.beau@org> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @10:12PM (#6702814)
            > The excuse for the 1965 power outage was effectively "we didn't know."
            > Obviously they know now, so "tbey didn't care" is a plausible theory.

            A temporary failure of a complex system like the American power grid every few decades doesn't sound like a "I don't care" attitude to me. Sounds like imperfect systems built by imperfect humans. The engineers will study this incident and improve the system. And we will discover yet another failure mode after another couple of decades of rapid demand growth. NIMBY attitudes towards building power plants are most likely the largest contributing factor though, since had the industry been able to build new plants to keep up with demand the system wouldn't have been running so close to capacity and that isn't a problem for engineers.

            Of course as a Dean supporter, brains and rational thought isn't likely to be your strong suit. Raw emotion, mostly a blind hatred of Shrub, are his draws.
          • by spurious cowherd (104353) on Friday August 15, 2003 @06:47AM (#6704447)
            Actually they do know.

            Federal Power Commission investigators found a single faulty relay at the Sir Adam Beck Station no. 2 in Ontario, Canada, which caused a key transmission line to disconnect ("open").
            This small failure triggered a sequence of escalating line overloads that quickly raced down the main trunk lines of the grid, separating major generation sources from load centers and weakening the entire system with each subsequent separation.

            As town after town went dark throughout the northeast, power plants in the New York City area automatically shut themselves off to prevent the surging grid from overloading their turbines.

      • by heli0 (659560) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:54PM (#6701987)
        "The most likely reason that this has happened is that the power companies did not want to spend as much money"

        No, they want to spend billions building new plants so this does not occur. The NIMBY crowd prevents this from happening. Hell, they won't even let them build windmills. Without new production capacity this is going to become a more common occurance.
    • A deregulated industry will attempt to operate its power system close to capacity at all times as much as possible. This leaves the system open to problems like today's.

      Deregulation may work out in the end, but so far what I've seen doesn't impress me very much.

    • Yes, in some ways (Score:3, Informative)

      by jhines (82154)
      In a deregulated environment, the interconnection of the systems becomes even more critical, since more power is being moved between companies and networks.

      Without a well regulated grid in operation, the market in power breaks down, just like it did today.
    • by ascii3f (193795) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:34PM (#6701325) Homepage
      Wrong. It has everything to do with deregulation.
      If a power company builds a new power line at their expense, they must allow other companies access and sell power using that line.
      Companies aren't building power infrastructure beyond the minimum required because they get screwed. You will see more of this happening.

      PS Full Disclosure. I am biased as I have worked in the power supply business for several decades.
    • by Frymaster (171343) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:35PM (#6701331) Homepage Journal
      i live in alberta. a few years ago, the provinicial government - which has an ideologicl committment to fiscal ultraconservatism - deregulated the power industry.

      the results have generally been regarded as disasterous - most notably a rise in power bills for both domestic and industrial consumers that topped out at well over double. the power rate increase resulted in less disposable consumer income and increased cost of doing business in the province and was regarded as an election-killer by the current administration.

      so they spent their way out of it to the the tune of $2.3 billion. that was direct subsidies to rate payers. of course the whole subsidy was a charade since those same rate payers were going to pay for their "subsidies" in income tax increases or reduced social spending in other areas. clearly a case of cutting you a cheque with your own money.

      so who got rich? the power companies. same service, same power, more money.

      bottom line: electricity is a necessity. like water, or the police service. it is a completely inelastic commodity and privatizing it is only encouraging the new power overlord (since there is, really, only one major power provider... a monopoly) to charge the maximum the market will bear and damn the consequences.

      source here: here [ualberta.ca]

      • by Hamster Lover (558288) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @09:00PM (#6702421) Journal
        I moved to Alberta from BC, to the left of Alberta on a map for those that don't know Canada, where the power is generally supplied by two companies, BC Hydro or West Koutenay Hydro (recently changed their name to something I can't remember). BC has abundant supplies of energy in the form of hydro electric power and depending on where you live you are supplied by one of these two companies.

        My electrical cost in BC was more than half the KWh rate it is in Alberta, somewhere around 4.5 cents/KWh. On top of the KWh rate, I pay a consent fee and a storage rider and a whole host of bullshit fees that I did not see in BC because of REGULATION. I paid usage in KWh and that was it. I could even look on the meter and calculate my KWh usage and get a rough idea of what my bill was going to be (if you remember this from High School). You sure as hell can't do that here, who knows what the "storage rider" will be this month.

        I have never understood the deregulation mentality; electricity is a necessity and business, especially high technology sectors, require and are attracted to cheap, reliable power. Deregulation has done none of that here in Alberta, costs are up and generation is down to maximize profit. I know several companies that locate themselves in BC due to the high demand they place on electricity, power that cannot be supplied by other provinces at such an attractive rate.

        Now they are talking about partial deregulation of the BC market. Once again businesses small and large will get the shaft and the electrical producing companies will reap the rewards. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.
    • by OECD (639690) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:37PM (#6701351) Journal

      Regarding the rolling blackouts in California, they had more to do with Enron witholding power than with deregulation.

      Not just Enron:

      • The CA legislature set up a "deregulated" market in which long term contracts were not allowed. It wasn't deregulated--it was assinine-regulated.
      • EDS--who set up the CA "deregulated" market--made a ton of money holding seminars that taught Enron et al how to 'game' their market.
    • by djblair (464047) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:49PM (#6701460)
      A former DTE employee, I am typing this on my laptop with no power here in Detroit, MI. I agree, this is certainly not a result of deregulation. Perhaps I can offer some insight on some of the specifics.

      The reason so many plants are now offline is because of a safety system put in place to protect their generating equipment. An overload can severely damage generators. The device which disconnects the plant from the grid is a shoebox-sized relay. The great northeastern blackout of 1965 was actually caused by a defective relay.

      However, it is highly unlikely that a relay was the cause of this outage. If not for faulty equipment, what caused it to happen? Since the problem seems to have originated in Niagra Falls, New York, I suspect that a major line which provedes part of the northeastern US with power from generating plants in Canada went down. This event would have triggered the above scenario, causing plants in both the US and Canada to shut down.

      It is interesting to note that, as with land-based phone systems, little has changed in the way power is distributed to customers in the last 30 years (certainly advances in fiber optics have advanced phone systems, but the last-mile copper systems have remained unchanged in over 50 years). Hopefully now, systems will be put in place to prevent outages of this magnitude from happening again. A system of automated switches with real-time network links could be used to disconnect parts of the grid instantly before the problem could spread. Maybe we will see some of this technology in the future, now that there is a definate need to persue it.
    • Why are so many US cities and states broke? Upping taxes to fix the problem is not a vote winner.

      Same thing with power, personal debt and quarterly reporting. Doubling the cost of electricity to expand the grids capability or rationing power (no aircon) will not be well received. A short-term view will always win over a long-term view if there is some pain involved.

  • Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Henry V .009 (518000) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:16PM (#6701116) Journal
    The rolling blackouts in California were rationing exercises. This, however, is an unplanned disaster.
    • Re:Huh? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mjmalone (677326) *
      Not to mention that the power needs in california were caused by witholding of power by Enron, not by deregulation.
  • by REden (174677) * on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:17PM (#6701126)
    This certainly sounds like the 1996 Great Northest Blackout.

    http://blackout.gmu.edu/events/tl1965.html

    Robert
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:17PM (#6701135)
    ...if you asked us to pass judgment on the guilt of Scott Peterson or Kobe Bryant. It's way too early to turn this into a rant against deregulation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:18PM (#6701136)
    "California went through rolling blackouts that were largely due to a poorly-executed deregulation of that state's power industry"

    Actually, there was a significant amount of fraud involved. Check it out here: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/03/26/national /main546097.shtml [cbsnews.com]
    • by poptones (653660) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:44PM (#6701415) Journal
      And so it goes. Widespread deregulation of public infrastructure is going to be remembered as a phenomenal mistake. People with way too fucking much money and power are driving this phenom, and only a fool believes they're doing it out of some touchy feely public compassion.

      They used to point at the airline industry - remember? "Oh, look how great the airline industry did after it was deregulated!" Yeah, well, so now the taxpayers get to bail them out to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Might as well have subsidized them from the beginning...

  • DAMN! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DAldredge (2353) <SlashdotEmail@GMail.Com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:18PM (#6701139) Journal
    The people that RUN THE FSCKING GRID do not know what went wrong and /. is posting articles asking if X caused it???

    Are you insane?
    • Re:DAMN! (Score:5, Informative)

      by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:12PM (#6701654)
      people that RUN THE FSCKING GRID do not know what went wrong

      I worked in the power control/data aquisition field for a while and can assure you that in a complex grid it is very difficult to pin-point failures.

      Consider that there are normally many redundant lines and generation points. If a generation point goes offline, then the load through the lines changes. If a line's capcacity is exceeded it trips. This increses the load through other lines and you can get run-away instability. All this shit goes down in a second or so, so figuring out where things went wrong is not easy. Figuring the *trigger* might be easy (eg. generation point failed), but at what point does the redundancy fail (ie does the system itself fails)?

      To keep on top of this, most grids run constant 'what if' analysis of their network. ie. if line x or generator y trips what will happen? if load increases at point x what will happen? The analysis helps to ensure that sufficient redundancy is switched in to cover certain failures to a certain risk level.

      Unfortuantely with cost cutting etc, building of new lines and upgrading often gets delayed. Thus, the opportunities for redundancy are decreased and the risk levels are increased.

      BTW: It is also a hell of a task to restart a grid.

    • Re:DAMN! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by HiThere (15173) * <`charleshixsn' `at' `earthlink.net'> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @10:42PM (#6702954)
      Be aware that there can be multiple layers of "causes". At one level the cause may be "the insulation on some wires failed and a short developed across the coils of a transformer".

      OK. But why?

      OK. But after the last New York blackout, there were many promisses that new switches were going to be emplaced that would automatically shutdown connections to large areas that were failing. This doesn't seem to have happened. Did the switches fail, or were they never installed.

      OK. But I heard that there was this computer model of the entire electrical system that was being built, which would be able to examine it's sensors an from a log of failures would be able to instantly report on what the cause had been, and where it had occured. Did the model fail? Is there some reason it isn't being used?

      Ok. But...

      Some of these could be answered immediately (by those with knowledge), some require on site investigation. Some are obvious without any statement, e.g., clearly the super power grid model isn't being used, or they could immediately pinpoint the problem. But why? (Probably it takes a super-computer to run it, and they can't afford to have it running most of the time...if it actually works, that is.)
  • by Zachary Kessin (1372) <zkessin@gmail.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:18PM (#6701143) Homepage Journal
    But I don't think de-regulation is a major part of this. The california problems were cronic problems that went on over a long period of time.

    As far as it is known now (3 hrs into the event) this is a one time deal due to equipment failure. In the summer due to Air Conditioning and other things power grids run very near the max so if something major fails then you are running much above 100%, this starts blowing breakers and shutting things down. The radio just said in 3 minutes 21 plants shut down, so once things start to fail and they can fail fast.
    • by Dastardly (4204) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:28PM (#6701259)
      The california problems were cronic problems that went on over a long period of time.

      What no one seems to talk about is the 1100MW nuclear reactor that could not produce power during the time due to refueling and then a busted turbine. That is what put the production on the hairy edge of demand, and then by gaming the system other producers were able to extend their profits.

      Dastardly
  • by dfay (75405) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:19PM (#6701148)

    "We support deregulation 100 percent..." (N-M spokesman, 1997; notes N-M wanted to sell generators and "concentrate on the transmission and distribution of energy" -- did it?);
    N-M made some bad investments and is scheduled to request a rate hike (did it?);
    and N-M's own website says: "Deregulation [has] changed the laws and regulations governing the electricity industry to promote competition..." (how so?).


    Also, show your work.

    Pencils down!
  • by raehl (609729) * <raehl311@nOSPam.yahoo.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:19PM (#6701153) Homepage
    Just because a politician calls it something doesn't make it true.

    CA got messed up because their power system was RE-regulated with a set of stupid rules that certain less-than-ethical companies took advatage of. It was the REGULATIONS put in place that caused everything to fall apart, not a lack of them.
    • by commodoresloat (172735) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:32PM (#6701295)
      CA got messed up because their power system was RE-regulated with a set of stupid rules that certain less-than-ethical companies took advatage of. It was the REGULATIONS put in place that caused everything to fall apart, not a lack of them.

      So let's see... you think these "less-than-ethical companies" would be better behaved with fewer rules? That makes a lot of sense. You're blaming the regulations because companies found ways to abuse them. How about a little blame for the companies that abuse them?

      • by raehl (609729) * <raehl311@nOSPam.yahoo.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:48PM (#6701457) Homepage
        California put some rather peculiar rules in place regarding how much should be paid to move power at certain times. What ended up happening is that companies were able to take advantage of these fees by moving power around unnecessarily and at peak times, forcing the state and other consumers of the power to pay more. It was the rough power equivalent of having your cab driver take you from O'hare to the Loop via Milwaukee.

        So yes, in this case, eliminate the rules that dictated that the price of power was based on the competition for transmission lines at a particular time (something the people controlling the transmission lines could easily inflate by moving power around unnecessarily) and the companies would not have been able to misbehave. The regulations gave the power companies the ability to set the prices for what they were selling.
    • You are obviously correct in that California's power system was never deregulated. It was re-regulated in a manner that all the politicians and relevant corporate stooges called "deregulation." And that doesn't necessarily make it so.

      Of course, so long as my power company can force me to give them an easement to put power lines on my property, they will not be, technically, deregulated. So long as they can use public resources, they will not be, technically, deregulated.

      That suggests to me that it is comp
  • rumours? (Score:4, Funny)

    by forgetmenot (467513) <atsjewell@NospAm.onebox.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:20PM (#6701165) Homepage
    Yes. Let's turn slashdot into a rumour-mill.
    Oh wait...
  • The real question (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Pompatus (642396) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:22PM (#6701191) Journal
    I like the last bit in that title line, "Is there a story?". A friend of mine from Bangladesh recently moved back there. I was chatting with him on ICQ when I noticed every 2-3 minutes he'd go offline and come back. He told me that the power kept going out. It is a regular occurance, and the external modem he was using to connect to the net wasn't on the backup power system.

    Here in New Orleans, we lose power about once a week for 10-20 minutes (more frequent if it rains, also depends on where in the city you are). Sometimes, power is out for a few hours. It's just a way of life.

    I realize that it's impressive that such a wide area recieved a blackout, but really, is this such a big deal? Everything should be fixed soon. People just need to relax. Maybe GO OUTSIDE!!! :)
  • New Zealand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SimonInOz (579741) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:25PM (#6701213)
    In March, 1998, Auckland - New Zealand's major city (though not the capital, that's Wellington, in case you need to know) - had a FIVE week blackout.
    This was after the system was privatised. They cut back on maintanance and instead of three main feeds, they had one. It blew up.
    Five weeks with no power. In a major(-ish - hey, I live in Sydney) city. Incredible.
    If any city NOT privatised has suffered such an indignity I have not heard about it.
    So I blame privatisation - the accountants tend to outrank and overrule the engineers (heard that one before? Remember Challenger?)
    • Re:New Zealand (Score:3, Interesting)

      by blake182 (619410)
      A friend of mine wrote up a rather entertaining summary of the Great Auckland blackout. Hope they don't mind the Slashdotting. http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~pgut001/misc/mercury .txt [auckland.ac.nz]
    • Re:New Zealand (Score:5, Informative)

      by automatix (664568) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @09:03PM (#6702444) Homepage
      After doing some research on this for an undergrad paper, it turns out that it was a combination of bad luck and accounting/management.

      The major 110kV CBD feeder lines had their lifetimes "reassessed" and it was decided that there were still plenty of years left in them. So they took their time replacing them (it was underway when the crisis started), but it turns out their lifetimes were more like the original specifications (funny that).

      One major 110kV line failed while one was down for maintenance, which lead to the failure of another two 110kV lines a few days later due to overloading. It didn't help when some monkey roadworker dug thru one of the smaller 40kV feeders that were helping prop up the cbd either.

      Then it got fun - rolling morning/afternoon blackouts, companies moving to offices out in the suburbs, temporary overhead lines erected running 20km to one of the other distribution yards, generators everywhere...

      Deregulation hadn't been completed at that stage - the new lines/distribution company in Auckland which came in to being a year or so after the crisis is taking their job very seriously and has done a lot to improve uptime and redundancy.

      Rob :)
  • by Zachary Kessin (1372) <zkessin@gmail.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:28PM (#6701250) Homepage Journal
    In case people are wondering how the power grid works, here is an article on howstuffworks.com on how
    The power grid works [howstuffworks.com]
  • by karpenl (584115) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:28PM (#6701255) Homepage
    Maybe regulation/deregulation is not as much the issue as redundancy in the power grid. I would think that it would make sense for there to be enough reduancy and backup systems in a power grid as large as the one described so that black outs such as this one do not occour.

    On the other hand, the need for redundancy, or possibly for areas to draw power from other sources is expensive, and does not fit the model of a profitable buisness. Regulation could help by fueling money into redundancy and requireing a certian ammount of backup systems in place so that major black outs occour. Also, as far as I understand, the power grids is large cities have not grown to keep up with demand in said cities making blackouts or atleast brown outs more plausable.

    Then again, this is only news because black outs of the magnitude happen so rarely. In all likelyhood this was a freak accident on the level that will not happen again for another 30 years or so. Hopefuly the people in charge of both the power grid in most areas as well as most major metropolitan areas have backup plans for when events such as this one occour. One can only hope.
  • by digrieze (519725) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:28PM (#6701257)
    I just saw the first political spin on this mess. Bill Richardson, the Former Energy Secretary, was on CNN saying we have a "third world power grid". What he didn't say and the CNN sycophant wouldn't bring up is that while he was in office the Clinton administration turned down every request to build new or upgrade existing power stations. The theory of the grid is that when one part of the grid needs power it can be shunted from areas with excess capacity. Just as in California (who also refused to build new capacity) THERE IS NO EXCESS CAPACITY! When one part is at capacity, they all are.

    Quite frankly, we're a living in a tech world now. We need the power. Until we stop politically cowtowing to "eco-nuts", "consumer advocates". and other neo-luddites this is going to keep happening.

  • Sorry!!! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Chester K (145560) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:31PM (#6701280) Homepage
    Sorry everyone, this one was my fault... I accidentally plugged my toaster oven in the same outlet as my microwave. :(
  • by b-baggins (610215) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:31PM (#6701283) Journal
    It has been my observation that when the government says they're going to deregulate an industry, what they really mean is they are going to re-regulate it.

    The California energy "deregulation" included such wonderful non-regulatory freedoms as: Prohibition on construction of new power plants, Purchasing power at a higher, mandated rate, and selling at a lower mandated rate, etc.
  • by Ummite (195748) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:33PM (#6701307) Homepage
    Last theory from Canadian governement is a thunderstorm near the border of canada-us, US-side, that cause the blackout.
  • by YrWrstNtmr (564987) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:37PM (#6701347)
    At this point in time...the situation is still being evaluated. *we don't know*

    More importantly, the people that run the power grid *do not know*.

    Some poor schmuck on the front lines probably knows...but he ain't talking yet.
  • by geekee (591277) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:43PM (#6701408)
    "California went through rolling blackouts that were largely due to a poorly-executed deregulation of that state's power industry. "

    The CA power crisis was a direct result of the failure to build a single power plant in CA for the last 15 years. The fact that the state was playing around with a half-assed form of deregulation in which the price to the consumer was still regulated is a coincidence. The fact is, CA wasn't able to supply enough power for itself, so was forced to by power on the open market.
  • by Pig Hogger (10379) <pig.hogger@NoSpaM.gmail.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:48PM (#6701458) Journal
    40 years ago, Quebec nationalized all power-procuction and put it under Hydro-Quebec's [hydro.qc.ca] umbrella. The State-owned corporation has never since failed to yield enormous profits (all going to the Quebec government - that's so much we won't have to pay in taxes), yet is providing the cheapest electricity in the world.

    Private-entreprise zealots quickly lose steam whenever you point Hydro-Quebec at them as a shining example of profitable State ownership.

  • by slouie (8781) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:50PM (#6701471)
    If the damn Sims would simply accept paying more taxes, I could build the nuclear plant and maybe get a stadium too. It would make them all happier too!

    Why Is My Power Plant Aging So Quickly? [ea.com]

    Hmm. Night approaches....

    Why Am I Getting Riots? [ea.com]

  • by EmagGeek (574360) <<gterich> <at> <aol.com>> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:51PM (#6701472) Journal
    Look, people. There isn't anything or anyone to blame for this.

    The Niagra Mohawk power grid serves the area in question. The way a power grid works is that there is a mesh of generation stations that are all interconnected by high-voltage transmission lines, 480kV on up. Each generation station has a primary service area and one or more (usually more) entry/exit stations where energy can either enter or exit the primary service area, depending on what they're telling the control system to do.

    A network of generation stations makes up a grid, and at the boundary of a grid, there are similar entry/exit stations.

    All generators, whether they be nuclear, hydro, wind, or whatever, have TONS of safety interlocks that engage at various points during abnormal conditions to prevent catastrophic failure. One of these interlock behaviors is to shut down and remove the generator from the grid in the event of an overload.

    The likely sequence of events in this situation is that there was a failure at one of the generators in the N-M grid that resulted in the shutdown of that generator. What happens when a generator shuts down is that all of the entry/exit points flip to "entry" mode to allow neighboring generators to take up the slack. Most generator companies have agreements with their neighbors to buy however much electricity they need at whatever the current price is, without acknowledgement, when one of these shutdown events happens.

    Anyway, once the initial generator shut down and the entry/exit stations flipped to entry mode, the neighboring generators were unable to take up the slack, so they in turn shut down as well. Then, a domino effect set in until it reached the boundary of the N-M grid, or when someone at the operator station woke up and hit the red button that prevents the transfer stations from automatically flipping to "entry" mode.

    Keep in mind that it didn't necessarily have to be an overload that caused it - a generator can shut down for a number of reasons.

    This all could have been a control system failure, an operator error, or some other unfortunate combination of events that happened to lead to a catastrophic grid failure.

  • by berwyn (409396) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @06:55PM (#6701508)
    I posted this in the ealier article about the power crisis. This thread didn't exist then, but it seams more appropriate here.

    I live in British Columbia, west coast of Canada, and we have a publicly owned power company called BC Hydro. However our provincial government, which is very pro business, has been making moves to privatize this public utility by selling off portions to private companies.
    The most recent branch to be sold off was to Accenture, a Bahamas based (i.e. tax shelter) spin off of Enron. If you don't remember Enron, here are some highlights: one of the biggest bankruptcies in US history, massive corporate crime, a major contributor to the California energy crisis due to power brokering, a major political contributor to one George W. Bush's election campaign and one of the script writers of Bush's current US Energy policy.
    One of the major arguments of our provincial government's privatization campaigns is that companies can run these utilities far better and at lower cost to the consumer than can public institutions.
    Well, I'm wondering, how many of you the east cost have seen your power bills going down. Don't every one raise there hands at once.
    Now the reason I point this out is I see a direct coloration between the movement to have Open Source Software being deployed in public infrastructure Vs. Closed Source, and Public run utilities, such as water and electricity, Vs. Private Market Driven Operation.
    I think most people who frequent Slashdot don't need an explanation in why an OSS solution should be the only standard for a democratic government. Just as I think they can see the rationale for publicly accountable organization running the fundamental utilities that support society, consisting of both Business and the People. However I think no one really understands the extent that Business now has in dictating government policy, and shifting that policy from serving the people to creating profit at the expense of the People, You and Me, whether we are American, Canadian or any other nationality. Health care is a prime example. The Struggle between Linux and Microsoft in India is another.

  • by sploxx (622853) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:06PM (#6701592)
    Actually, I found this a long time ago and think it is somewhat related... a movie of an exploding power transformer:

    http://205.243.100.155/frames/mpg/XfrmBlast1.mpg

    (from www.teslamania.com)
  • by kwiqsilver (585008) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:19PM (#6701716)
    The law that some called a deregulation law in California did not deregulate the power companies.
    Electricity transmission is (and was during the blackouts) controlled by the Independent System Operator, which is a CA government agency. In addition to controlling the flow of electricity, it also implements price caps and production limits. It also refused to let power companies build new stations.
    How exactly is that "deregulation"?
    True deregulation (which politicians will fight to avoid, because it takes away their beloved political power) is the only thing that will prevent crises like these.
    We have a similar problem in Phoenix this week. One of the two gasoline pipelines into the city was shut down, because of a problem (when inspectors said it could run at 80% with no risk). So now we have gas shortages and inflated prices.
    Companies with a government regulated monopoly provide piss-poor service, because they have no competition. Government babysitters don't increase the quality of a service, only the price. Competition imcreases the quality while decreasing the price.
  • by TheAwfulTruth (325623) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:31PM (#6701812) Homepage
    It USED to be that people thought ahead. It was normal to keep the electrical capacity at 30% above usage peaks. This way parts of the system could go down for planed and unplaned maintenence and there would not be black outs. It USED to be very well planned.

    In the last 30 or so years. It has become harder to build new plants, coupled with a lazy engineering and planning malaize that has come over nearly every part of the civil engineering branches of local and federal government. This left the west with less than 5% of capacity over peak usage (It's still about that today).

    Obviously the same back east. So a single failure anywhere cannot possibly be taken up by anyone else.

    A complete lack of far range thinking/planning over the last 30 years has brought us to this. Here in the west we have a similar crisis involving water that is very close to blowing up in our faces.

    We had it too good for too long. Everyone "forgot" what it took to make it that good in the first place :(

    Oh well.
  • by DCowern (182668) * on Thursday August 14, 2003 @07:31PM (#6701813) Homepage

    I wonder if the systems at the power plants had DCOM enabled.... :-)

    LINUX FOR THE NUKES!!!

  • by British (51765) <british1500@gmail.com> on Thursday August 14, 2003 @09:07PM (#6702468) Homepage Journal
    Right now, numerous stargazers are pulling out their dusty telescopes for some clean astronomy. Something not possible unless you drove out into the boonies where the light interference and pollution is minimal.

    Think of them all pulling their fist and going "YES! Mars here we come!".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 14, 2003 @09:14PM (#6702524)
    As at this time it has not been determined exactly why the Northeast Blackout of 2003 has occurred, there has been much speculation that it is due to Niagara Mohawk's grid failure.

    Being an "insider", I would just like to say that the thought that is running through my mind about this is that several years ago, when the original Niagara Mohawk wanted to sell the company, suddenly all the engineering employees were told that they were no longer to perform preventative maintenance work on tranmission and distribution lines. For quite a period of time, they literally sat around with nothing to do. Then the company was sold to a British company, and this "hands off" attitude has continued.

    So, I am very curious to know whether NiMo's lack of maintenance has something to do with today's problem. Another aspect of this problem is the fact that many long-time technical workers at Niagara Mohawk have either retired or been forced out, with their jobs not being filled. The crew sizes are down considerably. The amount of work never decreases - it mostly likely increases - but there are less KNOWLEDGEABLE people on board to handle such technical matters.

    I truly hope that a full investigation into this matter is done, and if NiMo has dropped the ball, they be held accountable.

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Thursday August 14, 2003 @10:04PM (#6702783) Homepage Journal
    What did the terrorists learn today? They learned that with their next major attack, two or three well placed attacks could plunge the entire nation into darkness, exponentially increasing the chaos. Anyone even want to think of what would have happened if they'd taken out that power station on 9/11?

    On the other side of the coin, we just learned that two or three well placed attacks could plunge the entire nation into darkness and we can start planning now to make sure that doesn't happen. Do you think we will?

    I'd start by mandating that towns either take their traffic signal systems off the main power grid or insure adequate backup power for them. The last thing we need in the middle of a blackout is traffic jams preventing emergency vehicles from getting where they need to go.

    I'd also make sure hospitals and air ports have adequate backup capacity. Apparently a lot of them don't.

    Then I'd have the Al-Capone Teamwork dinner with the CEOs of the various power companies, during which the NiMo CEO would get asked why one power station going down can take out a quarter of the nation's power. You know how that scene goes. Teamwork!

    That'd be a good start I guess. Gives us something to do for the next 5 years or so.

  • insufficient margin (Score:5, Informative)

    by Wansu (846) on Friday August 15, 2003 @12:21AM (#6703427)

    This is not the first massive northeastern blackout. There were wipespread blackouts like this in the early 1960s. The engineers learned that all sections of the grid must have significant over-capacity designed in so that the entire system could recover from large transients and short duration system oscillation without tripping protection devices. They beefed up the system so it could ride through these events.

    The safety margin is gone. Demand has grown but capacity has not. If lightning runs in on a substation, it can trigger a chain of events leading to a couple generator switchyards opening their air breakers. From there, the overload snowballs.

    Does deregulation play a part? Yes. Power brokering activities create additional burden on the system. There is less incentive to increase capacity. There is also diffusion of responsibility.

    The electric power industry was not broken prior to deregulation and didn't need fixing. It's infrastructure and regulated monopolies suck less than gov't run or private run ventures.

    This is apt to get worse.
  • by Newer Guy (520108) on Friday August 15, 2003 @12:33AM (#6703476)
    What causes cascades like this actually has very little to do with megawatts
    and everything to do with frequency. See, every generator on the power grid is
    syncronized to a common source. Indeed, before a power plant comes back on
    line it must first syncronize its generators. The generators normally sit
    there running at a boring 3600 RPM (60hz*60 seconds). All plants have a
    monitor that kicks them off line if their frequency varies by more than +/- a
    hz or so. As an aside, the power grid is not always EXACTLY 60 hz. The
    frequency of the entire grid is allowed to float a bit, though drifts are
    corrected so the frequency averaged over a certain time is a nominal 60 Hz.
    The cascade happens when a either big plant or a big load suddenly goes off
    line. In the case of a big plant the other plants try to take up the load, but
    in the process their frequency drops as the generators get loaded more (much
    like shifting a car's manual transmission to a higher gear before it hits the
    right engine RPM). Once a generator drops below 59 hz, it also trips off
    making it even harder for the ones left to keep up, and generators begin to
    fall off the grid like dominoes.
    The opposite happens when a load suddenly goes away, but in that case the
    generators' frequency abruptly jumps upward, which also results in it tripping
    off the grid. Either way the result is a cascade like happened today.

    Once the dominoes (generators) begin to fall off, the grid becomes unglued.
    There's an old saying in the power industry:
    59.5 Hz = trouble. 59 Hz = BIG trouble!

    I believe the new power management software mentioned in the news reports that
    should have prevented this works by intelligently shedding loads distant from where the anomaly occurrs (for example, shedding load in NYC for an anomaly in Canada). This would give the generators time to react to the change. Obviously it didn't work.
  • by NKJensen (51126) <[kd.neppurgtenretni] [ta] [jkn]> on Friday August 15, 2003 @03:44AM (#6703997) Homepage
    The power distribution everywhere in the western world is done using high voltage 3-phase AC systems.

    They fail, if
    a) the frequency slips or
    b) if the power balance between production and demand gets to big.

    The reason for all the hazzle of AC distribution is that it's simple to change voltages via transformers.

    With modern power electronics, transformers will no longer be needed.

    A DC distribution grid will be much more stable since the only reasons to take a generator off the network will be overload or overvoltage.

    There is no frequency to lock to. There is no syncronizing phase when the generator starts production again.

    At times with high demand, the DC grid voltage will drop. Surplus production will push up the grid voltage.

    Circuit breakers can be set to turn on at a certain voltage, that automatically will turn on demand when the grid voltage can drive the load. Low priority areas can have the high-voltage switches, high priority areas have low-voltage switches.

    Combine this with a varying price: Low voltage = high price, high voltage = low price and you'll get system which can smoothe out changes in the balance between supply and demand.

    Will it work? Well, we do have some DC links from Denmark to Germany and to Norway. They are relatively small but power electronics are developing fast.
  • by Denver_80203 (570689) on Friday August 15, 2003 @09:42AM (#6705283)
    "Today's failure is a dramatic reminder of the importance of the uninterrupted flow of power to the health, safety, and well being of our citizens and the defense of our country. "This failure should be immediately and carefully investigated in order to prevent a recurrence. "You are therefore directed to launch a thorough study of the cause of this failure. I am putting at your disposal full resources of the federal government and directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense and other agencies to support you in any way possible. You are to call upon the top experts in our nation in conducting the investigation. "A report is expected at the earliest possible moment as to the causes of the failure and the steps you recommend to be taken to prevent a recurrence." Signed, Lyndon B. Johnson
  • by useosx (693652) on Friday August 15, 2003 @01:14PM (#6706800)
    Greg Palast takes a look [commondreams.org] at why the lights went out.

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. -- Paul Erlich

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