BLACKOUT -- BUT NO STARS! ----------------------- 2003 August 16 John Pazmino NYSkies firstname.lastname@example.org 2003 August 16
Introduction ---------- I, along with some 50 million other souls, was caught in the multistate electric power outage on Thursday 14 August 2003. While my own experience was pretty tame, with no great agony or perils, I did make some curious observations of the sky.
Power collapse ------------ I was at work near Herald Square when the lights snapped out at 16:10 EDST. They, with all other electric apparatus, just shut off instantly. There was no dimming, slowing, flickering. Just a quick poof! from full power to none. The office was then illuminated by daylight from windows and emergency lights operating from batteries on drop relays. All phones were out of service because the new digital system we got is powered from the wall mains, altho the voice signals run thru the LAN. It took only a couple minutes to verify that this blackout was a major one covering at least all of New York City. After a few more minutes, by battery radios and calls via dedicated emergency phones, we learned that several states were in the dark (altho it was still daylight). We secured the office and let everyone out for the day. Some did leave; other lingered, including me.
Walk around the 'hood ------------------- By 17h it was obvious that the power would be out for some time to come. Such a large area of outage will not be restored at once. I left for the day and took in the scene around my office. I made a spiral traverse around the 'hood reaching east to Norman Thomas High School, west to Penn Station. To the north and south I skirted but didn't enter, Times and Madison Squares. As part of the response to emergencies, I packed my CD whistle and flashlight. If you're wondering what good these are for a computer compact disc, 'CD' means 'Civil Defense', a civilian corps exercised to handle some police and rescue functions in times of war. This was long ago disbanded with the end of the Cold War, but I kept my kit, including the armband. No, I didn't try wearing that; people probably now wouldn't understand it. The streets were rapidly filling up with walkers, so many that they spilled into the curb vehicular lanes of the wider streets. The hordes were neatly divided into two grand flocks. One was a milling crowd at bus stops. These folk were seeking either their normal bus or trying for a bus as alternative to electric rail or transit. The other flock was streams or rivers walking swiftly and purposefully in both directions on every street. They continued in torrents all during my circuit. All traffic signals were extinguished; store signs were dark; subways and rails were turned off. Despite the sudden loss of signals in the streets, cars seemed to procede with care, taking turns at the corners. Police were set up at the major corners and at some other there were civilians stepping into the traffic to guide it. For the most part, there was no gridlock or excessive horn-blowing.
Buses to City Hall ---------------- By 18h I turned homeward. The air was cooler than most previous days, with a light moist breeze. I didn't sweat up from the walking. I will not bore you with the details of the buses I ended up taking, but to merely note that I got a bus from the mid 30s to Greenwich Village, where it ended its run. The ride was no more comfortable or not for any normal rush hour. The AC was quite welcome and everyone on board was in a cheery mode. The ride was slow, stop and go, with no long dwells. I got to Greenwich Village in about a half hour. In the Village I fished for a continuing bus, which came along in a few minutes, and rode it to City Hall. I got a seat! Good thing, because this trip took a full hour! Along the way the Sun sank into horizon haze and twilight was creeping in when I got off.
Crossing Brooklyn Bridge ---------------------- From City Hall I walked over Brooklyn Bridge with a gazillion other people converging on the entry ramps from all directions. By now traffic into Manhattan was shut off, leaving the inbound vehicular lanes open to the flood of walkers. I wanted to walk on the footpath but was vectored by barriers and police to the inbound car lanes. The crowd moved briskly, at a pace that would leave most foreigners in the dust. Twilight was closing in rapidly with sunlight stifled behind the thick haze layer over the City. I never had to use the whistle, like for help if I got injured or saw an accident. The flashlight was essential in the falling light. It was truly a survival item! It looks like a cheap flashlight, but the bulb and reflector are set to throw a solid beam of light with a 'paenumbra' of much wider cone angle around it. Flashlights typicly emit a wretched blob or ring of light of almost no use to see your way in the dark. My lamp was perfect to read signs and warn of irregularities in the roaddeck.
River of light ------------ The approach road from City Hall to the Manhattan tower passes over the FDR Drive, a highway hugging the east flank of Manhattan island. It was at first hidden behind waterfront buildings as I began my trek. Then, wham!, I was whacked from the left by this dazzling light! It was the highway, packed with cars like in the usual rushhour. The headlights, seen from some 25 meters above them, were amazingly brilliant! Their brilliance was enhanced by the black surrounds. Under the Bridge the FDR Drive enters an interchange. The river of light, looking so much like fresh volcano lava, split into three prongs, like that lava flowing over hilly ground! I saw this before many times under quite adverse circumstances. The view I had until now was from Manhattan Bridge, from my train on the way home. I see the road thru a crazed window, dulled by interior lights of the train, with bridge girders flitting past, and only a moment of perfect alignment. Now I was standing at the crash wall looking between the girders in clear air and all that. The effect was, uh, illuminating. There is now a new to-do item. Go back to Brooklyn Bridge in the fall, when darkness comes earlier, and photograph this river of light as an example of automobile-induced luminous graffiti. I could also do the same from the newish footpath on Manhattan Bridge.
Continuing on the Bridge ---------------------- Enough of that. I marched on. The entire mood was rather festive with impromptu convos igniting along the way to compare previous blackouts, World Trade Center, and other major calamities. It was weird to relate the 1965 blackout to the younger folk, who likely were born after the Apollo flights ended! On the other hand, it was fascinating to hear of power cuts from other places as told by visitors or newcomers to the City. About a hundred meters farther onto the Bridge I stopped at the crash wall to gaze at the East River in the uptown direction. My view downtown was blocked by the bridge structure and outbound vehicular traffic. Yes, all of the City in view was dark, except for isolated individual lamps here and there, perhaps a dozen at the most. The gross lighting came from the FDR Drive and cars on Manhattan Bridge, the next one uptown on East River. Now the headlights were flickering or winking or blinking as they were interrupted by trees, poles, fences, structure.
Sky over East River ----------------- By now it was getting to full night. I looked up at the night sky. No stars. Now it was a summer day with a thick deck of haze over all the sky. And the Sun set into this blanket earlier this evening. At first, then, I wasn't surprised to find no stars. But! The sky was NOT inky black. Not even plain very black. It was filled with a luminous graffiti all over. The Manhattan Bridge and city skyline were outlined against it. Overall the sky was a blue-gray tint, reminding me of a very dark solar eclipse sky. There was actually enough light from the sky, by now my eyes were getting dark adapted, to walk about confidently! What's more, the texture on the masonry towers of the Bridge and the lacework of its cables were plainly discernible. You do know the Brooklyn Bridge is a masonry structure, yes? There is NO steel internal framework faced with stone decoration. The whole effing towers are stone block placed atop stone block, like mediaeval castles. Where was this stuff coming from? There seemed to be no hotspots; the Moon hadn't risen yet. Two days later I learned that New Jersey was only partially blacked out. Yet, now even accounting for that, and I didn't see any light dome over Jersey, the sky was still pucky bright.
Into Brooklyn ----------- I continued walking, stopping every hundred meters or so to inspect the scene and sky. I deliberately made some flow counts, too. The rate of pedestrians in the car lanes, not including the footpath, ranged from 50 to 150 per minute. The mean was 100 to 120 per minute. People tended to form clumps with sizable gaps between them. At the landfall we were greeted by Brooklyn police welcoming us to their happy habitat. We cheered them, shook their hands, waved flashlights at them. My own trek took about an hour, with all the stops along the way. The road turned southward toward Boro Hall, where I split off to get buses home.
Buses to home ----------- It took about a half hour in stygian darkness to find my proper bus stop. The flashlight was vital for reading signs and picking out obstructions in the street. Two packed buses passed by without stopping, so I fixed to take other routes that connect to one reaching my house. I hopped onto one, loosely filled, no seats, but with good AC. The driver called out the stops being that you couldn't recognize anything out the windows and there were many foreign riders. This bus connected with a second one that went to my nabe. This one offered me a seat! While waiting for this bus, I scanned the sky. Same eerie bluish luminance. Now I could make out Vega and Mars. A hotspot creeped up in the east; the Moon by now rose. Mars came and went at the threshold of my sight. This was likely due to denser and rarer parts of the haze drifting over him. The combined ride on these buses was about an hour and a half, taking in heavy traffic near Boro Hall and the wait between buses. From the second bus, I walked in familiar streets to my house. On my block, now about 22:30 EDST, I saw the same bright sky, only Vega and Mars. The Moon was dulled by haze with her markings fully discernible.
At home ----- There was nothing doing at home. Father and sister were listening to battery radios. Sister set out candles here and there. I showered and went to sleep. If the trains were running in the morning, Friday, I go to work, If not, I stay home. As luck had it, there was no transit on Friday. My block still had no electric yet, altho restoration in other parts of the City was proceding steadily. There was never a threat to the water supply. New York water is pure mountain rain water reaching the City by gravity and siphon. It needs very little sanitary treatment. My house and other places in the low-elevation parts of the City never lost pressure. Those on high ground and high rise towers have internal pumping. This was dead from the lack of electric and such places then had only what water happened to be stored in their internal tanks. Friday was drier and clearer than Thursday. The sky was actually blue, The Sun was a blazing disc. I passed most of the day reading in daylight on the stoop. Lighting thru the windows within the house was too erratic. By late afternoon, the Sun waned substantially into a yellow-white disc, remaining that way thru a geometric sunset. We took supper in twilight, while there was still natural light to work in the kitchen. Bingo!, at 19:25 EDST on Friday 15 August 2003, the electric turned on. I cautioned against resuming a full electric use for the rest of the night. Leave a couple lamps on for area lighting and turn on one television. The sky that night was more or less a normal summer sky. By nightfall probably all of Brooklyn regained the electric and the sky was illuminated more or less normally. I guess the real better clarity of the air, compared to the dismally hazy nights so far this summer, and the fact that many businesses closed from Thursday hadn't reopened yet, the transparency was a better than normal. Not much, 3rd magnitude versus 2nd or 2-1/2. At least the Moon was farther east and didn't interfere so much. For sure, there was NOT the spectacularly star-filled sky of the nights following World Trade Center or the 1977 ConEd blackout.
Work on Saturday -------------- On Saturday the 16th of August 2003 I awoke in early morning with no plans for the day. I wasn't even sure if transit was running yet. It takes six or more hours after power is turned on to let trains operate again. At about 09:30 my boss called me at home. I figured he was home in Connecticut, which suffered the blackout in its western half. No, he was at the office! He came in to prepare for a business trip he planned to get ready for on Friday. He was leaving on Monday so he had to get some work done. But! The LAN and telephones were out of service. He was working with the head office, talking thru his cellphone, to get it started. The task got too technically involved for him. He noted that the subways were running; he saw them from Grand Central. I then offered, if the trains were in service in Brooklyn, to come to the office and fix the LAN. I freshened up and scooted to my subway station; trains were running on a weekend schedule. The ride to work was pleasant with nice AC, roomy coach, and thinned crowd of riders. Cranking up the LAN was a tricky technical process I'll leave out here. It took an hour with help from my head office. Boss and I stayed at work for the rest of the day. Because so many of my friends know me from the old Federal Power Commission and my work with the 1977 blackout investigation, I'm getting inundated with questions about this present episode. First off, my office's scope is now confined to hydroelectric power, which is, in the northeast, characterized by small facilities clipped onto a nearby mid-voltage transmission line. Once the electric gets to that line, we lose control of it. However, we still have many of the electrical maps and diagrams for utilities. Since our office always covered only the northeast, we treated Quebec, Canada, the Midwest as 'blackboxes', even representing the humongous James Bay project of Quebec as a small dot on the maps. Yet there was enough for me to examine on Saturday at work after getting the phones and LAN humming.
Deregulation ---------- A massive complication is my review of the power system was the recent deregulation of the industry. The most visible aspect was the segregation of the generation function from the transmission and retail function. Consolidated Edison Company of New York, for example, no longer runs its power plants. They were sold off or retired thruout the 1990s. Keyspan Energy, never an electric power company, now owns the Ravenswood station in Long Island City. This was the pride and joy of Con Edison, home of the largest generating machine in the world when built in the early 1960s. Con Edison now buys electric from the new owners of the power plants and then only retails it to the customers. Its bills show the separate charges for its purchase of electric and its own [minor] distribution. What many customers miss is that only the distribution part remains under state regulation. The purchase part is a free- market deal. Right away the convolution of the restoration process is evident. Con Edison, sticking with the New York example, has to work with perhaps ten other separate firms at its former plants, in the stead of sending its own crews with its own orders to them. There must surely have been a stretch out of the power restoration from such multiparty negotiations.
Lakes power flow -------------- By way of background, the elephant-in-the-bedroom of the North American power system is Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They forced the power grid to grow around them and carry a circulating current. The two loops, around each lake, meet at the Niagara Falls complex, where Lake Erie empties into Lake Ontario thru Niagara Falls. The normal flow around each lake is counterclockwise; west to east on the American side, east to west on the Quebec and Canada side. There are exceptions, like the north-to-south flow from the James Bay project to the United States. All the utiltiy names I mention below are legacy names. Name changes and mergers may well have altered them since ny office worked with these firms. Because in history the power companies grew up independently of each other, with joint construction becoming routine in the late 20th century, the strength of the transmission grid varies widely around the lakes. In New York state are Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and New York Power Authority. The latter operates the Niagara Falls project, in coordination with a similar one, Beck, on the Canada side of the falls. Both systems operate extensive 345 kilovolt power lines, which together move power across most of the state. Con Edison, serving most of New York City and much of Westchester county, is not part of the lakes circulation. It does conduct power between New Jersey and Pennsylvania to its west and New England to its east. In Pennsylvania are Pennsylvania Electric Company and West Penn Power Company, both working 230 and 500 kilovolt transmission lines. The Ohio lakefront has Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, Toledo Edison Company, and Ohio Edison Company. They work 345 kilovolt lines. The southern part of the state, served by Ohio Power Company and Columbus & Southern Ohio Edison Company, has several lines working at 765 kilovolts, the highest AC voltage in the country. They were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Farther west was always beyond my office territory, so I have little knowledge of the power grid there. Since the 1970s there was only minor expansion of the transmission network on the American side of Lakes Ontario and Erie. This slowdown in growth results from many factors. Among them are the fiscal crisis of the 1970s in the industry, the high rate of interest for construction bonds in the early 1980s, a moderated growth in power demand thruout the 1980s, and increasing public involvement in power facility siting in the 1990s.
What happened? ------------ The instant cause of the power cut is as at nightfall on August 16th still a matter of speculation. None of the electric utility representatives offered a competent postulate during news interviews and commentary. The only preliminary notion is that the initial interruption occurred near Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, and percolated east and west to disrupt the lakes current. This idea could well be replaced by others in the weeks to come. At least in New York State, the power grid was deliberately shut down to prevent propagation of surges or dips into it. There was, as far as is known now, no collateral incidents within the state to compound the collapse. Con Edison, for one, reported no physical damage to its properties. A report of a fire at its East River station (now used for street steam production) was withdrawn. Witnesses mistook a smokestack plume during the wind down of the plant for that issuing from a fire. What kinds of accident could happen? There are two main ones: loss of generation or of transmission. The typical loss of generation is a machine at a power station that breaks down and stops producing electric. Loss of transmission usually is the cut off of a particular power line from a drop or rise in voltage or phase. Either loss can impose a sudden imbalance of electric flow, which could then result in over or under current elsewhere on the grid. Power companies routinely postulate such accidents and do simulations of their effects. Responses include shutting off certain customers, buying emergency power from neighboring sources, isolating the trouble spot (by opening circuit breakers around it), increasing generation at other stations, reducing voltage on the grid, increasing power load on other lines. The proactive anticipation of accidents is a normal part of the cotidian work of the electric power industry. Why such an accident, in this instance, led within seconds or even cycles to the crash of the entire lakes circulation is for me entirely unfathomable as at now. So far there is just too scanty information to work with.
Conclusion -------- This was the third major blackout I experienced. The others were in 1965 and 1977, both engulfing the City or more. In all three cases I went thru some nuisance and inconvenience but never was in danager or felt vulnerable. The key to riding out a blackout is to set aside any need or want of electric service and to acclimate to the surrounding situation. For one thing, it it no longer required to 'get home' as quickly as possible, the exception being if there is a household member that absolutely needs attention by a clock schedule. In 1965 and 1977 there was no remote communication on the move with others but by coin-op telephone. By the 2003 incident, cellphones were coming into wide use as prices and size of units were on the downward slide. In 1965 and 1977 we had chemophoto cameras and limited number of shots in them. 2003 saw the beginning of digital cameras, as yet bulky and clumsy to operate. Oh, what about stars on Saturday, the 16th? No stars on Saturday night. The sky was all clouded over.