Behind the hum of a power-grid: human choices
Blackout spurs talk of costly fixes, but basic communication and decisions can be key to averting outages.
When the full fury of power-grid chaos came rolling through America's Northeast last Thursday, leaving millions without power, Vermont didn't go black.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Part of the reason was fast-acting sensors that sealed off the state from the rest of the Eastern grid. But another factor was the decades-long experience - and rapid-fire ingenuity - of electrical engineers like Grant Adams.
A tall, bespectacled man - who took a 50 percent pay cut to do the job he loves - Mr. Adams saw the fluorescent lights in his utility-company office dim on Thursday. He then sprinted into the control room - which was buzzing with 300 alarms - to help stabilize the state's rapidly deteriorating grid. "We were right on the edge," he says.
For residents of the Green Mountain State, the tale ultimately had a happy ending that day, but it also highlights how central the human factor is in power-grid management. It appears increasingly likely that human actions - or lack thereof - will be at least partly blamed for the biggest blackout in US history. And while billions of dollars may be needed to modernize America's electricity infrastructure, it's also clear that less-costly issues of human communication and decisionmaking may be just as crucial in preventing future blackouts.
Running power grids "requires someone looking at screens who has a lot of knowledge and judgment - and can act," says Robert Burns, a electricity expert at Ohio State University. Communication between engineers is also key. "Only so much of the communication can be between computers. To some extent people have to be able to talk to each other," including before any emergencies, he says. "The what-if scenarios have to be talked out in advance."
That's just the kind of thing Adams loves to do. For years, he worked the night shift in the control center, a secure room in the basement of Central Vermont Public Service, from which engineers control much of the grid. Along one wall stands an 8-foot-by-30-foot electronic map of the state's power system. With thousands of interconnected lines and lights, it looks like giant, lit-up maze from a child's activity book.
During many late nights, Adams would stare at the map and ask himself, "What if that substation went down - how would I compensate?" And what if a particular transformer blew? And on and on. "About 3 a.m. you start to get a little squirrely," he says with a smile. These days, engineers keep a treadmill in the room as a late-night diversion.
Managing a power grid is a supreme balancing act. It's a bit like controlling a small wave pool with hundreds of wave machines around its edge. If all the machines are operating at about the same level, there's a basic equilibrium in the water.
But if some machines are churning faster or harder than others, rogue waves can form - and start swamping the entire system. The wilder the waves, the more power plants start disconnecting themselves from the system - to avoid damaging their equipment. But that only complicates the problem. Some wave-making power is needed to tame big waves and bring the pool back into equilibrium.