Can We Prevent More Power Outages?

Blackouts cost money, lots of money. There are many causes of grid failure, and usually major grid failures over a large region are caused by a series of failures and mishaps. The grid is designed for redundancy but not for a domino-effect series of seemingly unrelated failures like that of August 14, 2003.

Some typical causes of power grid failures are faults at power stations, overloading mains, short circuits, damage to transmission lines or other power equipment, and weather problems, to mention a few.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) recently released a new report that outlined how to protect the US electric grid from power outages caused by natural disasters.

The “Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages” report focuses on the impact of power outages caused by severe weather between 2003 and 2012 Here is a short summary of the findings:

  • Weather-related outages are estimated to have cost the US economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion.
  • Roughly 679 power outages, each affecting at least 50,000 customers, occurred due to weather events. The aging grid — much of which was constructed over more than a century — has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather.
  • In 2012, the United States suffered 11 billion-dollar weather disasters – the second-most for any year on record, behind only 2011.
  • Since 1980, the United States has sustained 144 weather disasters whose damage cost reached or exceeded $1 billion, and seven of the 10 costliest storms in US history occurred between 2004 and 2012.

The report discusses strategies for modernizing the grid to better prevent power outages. These strategies include:

  • Conducting exercises to identify and lower the potential impacts of hazards to the grid
  • Working with utilities to strengthen their infrastructure against wind and flood damage
  • Increasing overall system flexibility and robustness of the grid
  • Supporting implementation of modern technologies that can quickly alert utilities when consumers experience a power outage or there is a system disruption, and automatically reroute power to avoid further outages

These strategies are designed to build on current initiatives, including the President's “Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid,” which set out a four-pronged strategy for modernizing the grid and directed billions of dollars toward investments in 21st century smart grid technologies. US investments have begun to increase the resilience and reliability of the grid in the face of severe weather. (Learn more at

Electrical power failure is not a new phenomenon. Massive power failures have occurred throughout the United States and the world. The heavy dependence of modern infrastructure on electricity can lead to public health effects as well as other services affected when power is lost.

Let's look at the NYC blackout on August 14, 2003. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) environmental section contacted the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to determine if the city's drinking water supply was safe for drinking. Because the city's potable water system was constructed such that gravity alone can maintain water pressure, there was no loss of pressure during the blackout, and therefore no additional risk of contamination.

Other cities may not have this type of system, and their water supplies may be vulnerable during a blackout. Microbial monitoring of potable water must be done during a blackout. Residents of high-rise apartment buildings depend on electrical pumps to raise potable water from street level to their homes. With the loss of power, these residents could be left without ready access to potable water for several days.

This blackout affected a substantial area of the Northeast United States, including all five boroughs of New York City. Although power was returned to the majority of the city by the evening of Saturday, August 16, DOHMH encountered several issues during its response to the emergency: failure of hospital emergency generators, large numbers of patients dependent on electrically powered medical equipment, and contamination of recreational waterways.

DOHMH anticipated other potential problems, including spoilage of perishable foods, which could potentially result in foodborne disease, and pest-control issues and vaccine spoilage. An increased incidence of gastrointestinal disease was detected in New York City following the blackout. While responding to the blackout and resulting public health impacts, DOHMH had to be able to maintain other important routine functions, such as its burial desk, poison control call center, West Nile pesticide spraying activities, and 24-hour mental health referral hotline.

New York City was previously affected by citywide blackouts in 1965 and 1977. DOHMH monitored blood banks for the potential spoilage of banked blood because approximately one-third of the blood banks did not have emergency generators. Surprisingly, 37 percent of New York City hospitals did not have emergency generators. One of the action items implemented in response to the 1965 blackout was to have standby crews with 55kW mobile generators to reduce the time required to provide auxiliary power to police and other agencies.

The blackout of July 13-14, 1977, saw a marked rise in criminal activity. During the 26.5 hours of the blackout, 3,418 persons were arrested, primarily for looting.

Many people are not just inconvenienced by a blackout, but their lives and health may suffer from such an event. There are many agencies that are working on ways to improve our power monitoring system to predict and prevent future grid blackouts.

Check out one company's possible solution to helping predict and prevent a major power grid blackout in this article on EDN. Please give your comments and ideas to our EDN and Planet Analog readers.

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19 comments on “Can We Prevent More Power Outages?

  1. eafpres
    September 27, 2013

    Hi Steve–great material.  I infer from Genscape's descriptions on EDN that they are using some non-contact or remote sensors to watch the grid.  Their coverage is impressive but I doubt they are directly contracted with all the utilities.  Utilities are pretty conservative and while some adoption of advanced monitoring has taken place, there is a lot more that can be done.  I think that monitoring flow over HV lines is great, but it is like process control–you would rather monitor the pump motor and output pressure directly than just measure flow downstream.  So there is a need to get into transformer yards and monitor the equipment.  It usually is a failure at one of those points that starts a wider problem.  I don't know that the actual power generation fails.  The typical topology is generation –> generation xfrmr yard –> transmission–>transmission xfrmr yard–>distribution–>distribution sub stations–>end user.  Monitoring the transformers, switches, and other equipment in these yards is essential to a complete solution.

  2. Davidled
    September 27, 2013

    There is no way to avoid Blackout 100% in reality. But Energy agency should keep improving the Power Grid, change old power station to new power station, and increase eco-power station. As educating maintenance engineer, they could maintain all service parts related to generator or other components.

  3. Steve Taranovich
    September 27, 2013

    @DaeJ—this would be an absolute minimum that the power company needs to do, but it is critical that they improve their infrastructure and properly educate their operators

  4. Steve Taranovich
    September 27, 2013

    @eafpres, I absolutely agree. In order to have a greater chance to predict and prevent blackouts, all points of failure need to be monitored. It would be costly, but how much more costly is a blackout?

  5. Netcrawl
    September 28, 2013

    Yes you're right we need to improve our power grid, from generation to transmission. Actually we produce enough power. I don't see any problem in generations. I think we need to look on our transmission. Do we really transmit enough powers to our homes?   

    We nned to introduce some good stuff-superconductor power cables. It has the potential to transform the entire electric-power industry in much the same way as optical fibers transformed telecommunication industry. When cooled to very low temperatures, superconducting wire conducts electric current with little or no energy loss, enabling it to transmit far more electricity than conventional copper wire of comparable size.

  6. Netcrawl
    September 28, 2013

    Its an expensive job! Monitoring is a huge task, how do you monitor solar storm? about an EMP strike? those beyond our control or simply things that we cant control. An EMP attcak could definitely cripple our grid, a single swift strike is enough to shutdown everything. Solar storm is a very serious threat, we shave seen this already, they're have this devastating power, able to cripple anything that run on electronics.   

  7. Steve Taranovich
    September 28, 2013

    @Netcrawl—First we need to take care of the “easy” areas that we can control and monitor, then the EMP and Solar storms, which are rare occurances, but can be devastating, need to be taken care of after the more frequently occuring problems are solved

  8. samicksha
    September 28, 2013

    @Daej: Improving power grid is something wherein we cannot do much but still we need to figure out solution for unplanned outages claiming huge financial loss and as if now the alternative is battery plants and power backup which consume lot money…it makes me little more worried when i account on North America where natural disasters hit almost every year, like latest one was Hurricane, where power restoration took more than 48 Hrs..

  9. David Maciel Silva
    September 28, 2013

    Hi Steve, nice job!

    Maybe : an intelligent network for monitoring and control demand, without this network will not be able to sell electric cars, because the peak power when load is too high.

    Ge company, introduces new technologies to this market: # / smart_meters

    This is already a reality in some countries.

    As you spotting an intelligent care of the entire energy demand of a country / state?

  10. Davidled
    September 28, 2013

    For intelligent network of software defined protocol, cost efficiencies and security are considered.  Cost of maintenance should be reduced by sampling and improving network performance.  Best security is a better design in the network environment to avoid cyber attack.  

  11. Davidled
    September 28, 2013

    I think that for emergency case, such as natural disasters, plant engineers have a back -up generator. So at least to minimize the damage impacts, they are keeping improve generators related to AC-DC and DC-DC converts as Power grid is located underground.

  12. Steve Taranovich
    September 29, 2013

    @Maciel—I am not aware of any country or state that has implemented intelligent care of energy demand, but the Smart Grid is coming to the US and other areas. The main difficulty is security and acceptance by the electricity users.

  13. Netcrawl
    September 29, 2013

    @Daej you're right there's a need to be greater focus on network monitoring and security to ensure the safety of our power infrastructure. Adopting smart grid technologies could be a goed idea.

  14. David Maciel Silva
    September 30, 2013

    Hi Steve,

    In Brazil Cemig, is doing some testing with a smart grid, is already well into the project.

    The study of renewable sources is also quoted in a project called Cities of the Future.

  15. Steve Taranovich
    September 30, 2013

    @Maciel–thanks for that link—I'm happy it has an English translation. Although I understand and read Spanish, Portugese is more difficult for me.


    Cemig is doing it right! Kudos to Brazil! They are hiring consultants and the Cities of the Future idea is a great way to test out their modern electrical system deployment. I hope we see more of this around the world

  16. David Maciel Silva
    September 30, 2013

    Hello Steve,

    Today we have a prediction for the future: We will need electric cars obviously have a great arm wrestling with the fuel supplier.

    But without an efficient network that will be impossible, because imagine several vehicles carrying all at the same time …

    The eletropaulo SP, is studying tax cuts for alternative use at different times of peak demand.

    I hope this becomes a reality that the economy would have with an electric car would be huge ..

  17. Steve Taranovich
    September 30, 2013

    @Maciel—Yes, we will all have to compromise and multiplex out EV charging some day or maybe someone will develop a better and more efficient way to charge EV's. For example, I know that MIT is working on an inductive mat that sits on your garage floor—you drive into the garage, over the mat and your EV begins immediate charging—-no need to plug in!


    This may not solve the energy supply problem that the utility has, but it show what creativity is coming

  18. vbiancomano
    October 2, 2013

    Staten Island NY was entirely spared the “Great Northeast Blackout of 1965,” and at the time was said to be the only spot saved in NYC. Reportedly, our local utility operators had cut away from the grid when the request came for providing more power to surrounding city areas. I remember a slight dimming for a second, and that was it.

    But the island didn't escape in 1977. Why not? It's a mystery I'm still looking to solve, and I have yet to see an analysis. A report in 2003 looking to build the “invulnerable” grid called for “better trained” humans. What happened in 1965 on Staten Island that didn't happen in 1977? Was it a question of operators being ultra-alert and/or having cat-like reaction times? Or had the systems become too complex for any meaningful human intervention? And what's the role of local system operators in future “smart-grid” infrastructures? If I were a system planner, I'd want to know the answers to those questions before thinking too far ahead in terms of the electronics.

  19. SunitaT
    October 29, 2013

    The power outages that continued after Hurricane Sandy were reasoned by numerous disruptions in this supply chain. Fossil coal was still being trademarked in 50 year-old power houseplants, but not all the circuits were associated to deliver to everybody.

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