Chapter 40: The Northeast Power Blackout
13 November 1965, 0200 EST
"Kalo (Hello), Bob. To use a horrid pun, everybody's in the dark about the causes of the tremendous power failure in the Northeast on November 9th. Before we tell you why we did it, we must confirm that we are solely responsible for the blackout.
"Let us begin two weeks ago. Three of our agents in high-level positions in the power-distribution operation in the Northeast came to the Massachusetts base with some interesting information.
"They had been conferring privately for some time on facts they had discovered during an intensive analysis of the power transmission 'grid' that feeds the northeastern United States. They decided that this situation, if discovered by unfriendly powers before your own engineers and officials were informed, could be used against your nation. Therefore, they reasoned, it was our duty to inform your officials of this fact.
"At the Massachusetts base, a high-level conference was initiated, to establish a plan of action which might effectively demonstrate the danger involved. It was noted that a very important person in the ranks of the power field had stated that, due to the high complexity of the system, an extensive failure had been made impossible. Thus, they would not be receptive to our suggestions and points.
"As a result, it was unanimously agreed that instead of mere words, we should use action -- an impressive and irrefutable action. We then had to decide upon the most effective, but least injurious action.
"Two days before the failure occured, a plan had been drawn up to throw a few 'bugs' into the grid. Let us here describe what a power grid is. We will use a simple example to illustrate.
"Somewhere in the northeast, there are situated three power-generating stations, A, B, and C. These feed three major cities, X, Y, and Z. Under normal conditions, each is capable of handling its own load, and everything runs smoothly.
"Suppose that city Z begins to draw more load than station C can safely provide. C therefore checks with its systems to find out if A or B can handle the excess. If either one can, C ties in on the grid with, for example to A, and the combined A and C supplies carry over the peak load. When it subsides, C resumes its usual operation, A resumes its normal load, and only the power companies know that anything unusual occured.
"Now let us assume that the equipment of B fails. B therefore checks with A and C to find out if they can carry the added load until it can repair the fault. If the answer is yes, B switches its load to the Grid, and A and C assume the load until B can again take on the load. If A and C cannot handle the extra, B isolates and the city Y experiences a short blackout until B is running again.
"On a much vaster scale, this is how the northeast power system operates. Numerous power stations interconnect with a host of cities in an extremely complex arrangement, feeding back and forth, interconnecting, sharing loads, all so smoothly that the worst anyone sees is an occasional flicker of the lights.
"The entire operation is controlled by computers that monitor the percentages of load at all the power stations simultaneously, and indicate which one to go to for additional power in case of the overload of equipment, or breakdown.
"Suppose now that two stations simultaneously experience trouble in some form. At both, the computers show that such and such station has the capability to handle its needs. So both station switch onto that one together. Now that one cannot handle the load, and it fails. It, in turn, goes searching the remaining stations and, by this method, they fall like dominoes.
"The thing which should prevent this is the fact that if a station sees an excessive load being thrown on its equipment, it should isolate itself to prevent being put out of commission, and end the string right there.
"Here is where we found the problem. We discovered that if certain critical stations failed together they would cause the chain reaction at such a rate that the switching wouldn't be fast enough to prevent it. At our Massachusetts base, there is a panel of instruments which monitors the loads of every power station in the country. Our own computers are second-guessing those in the power stations, and tell us a Iew minutes ahead which station will go where, and so forth, in the event of breakdown or overload. Thus, we know at any time which point of the grid to cause to fail if we need to cause such a domino-like collapse.
"Tuesday evening, we had our ships stationed over these critical points. We watched on remote monitors. as more and more power was used, as the evening grew darker, for heating, lighting, cooking, etc. When it reached a substantial amount, which we determined no one station could carry alone, we magnetically tripped open a number of circuit breakers, causing what appeared to be a failure in apparatus. We knew that the affected stations had the same station on their computers, as a source of additional power. The rest is history! There was complete power failure within a few moments.
"Our purposes were several: first, to bring into glaring focus the existence of such a potential danger to your national security, and to your industrial and commercial strength; second, to cause as much inconvenience as possible to your people, in order to bring strong public outcry for changes to be made; third, to show our own strength and capabilities. Your officials knew who was responsible. This is why they refused to commit themselves about it.
"We were fully aware that the results of this, economically, would be very costly. So much the better. Perhaps the lesson will be better learned if, in the process, the economy suffers a setback.
"Naturally, if we had not known that all your medical and other emergency facilities are equipped with their own power, we could not have conceived of this action. Since no one died from the blackout, we therefore call it an unqualified success. It has achieved every goal we had set.
"It remains only for your authorities to take appropriate action to prevent further such occurrences. Might we suggest a few points:
"First: put all switching under computer control, allowing almost instant response, and eliminating the human element.
"Second: keep all computers in touch with one another so that no two stations can be switched onto a third station at any one time.
"Third: install back-up services for emergency use only, which can be switched onto the grids in a very few minutes, and capable of carrying the load of any of the grid stations, up to the largest.
"Fourth: put monitors on every conductor and breaker in the network, so that the fault may be isolated instantly and the power rerouted.
"Fifth: insure that no substation, transmission line, or other unit, is indispensable, and will cause extended failure in case of breakdown. Every unit should have an alternate route.
"Sixth: keep all equipment in top condition at all times.
"This will close our communication for now. If necessary, we shall again discuss this topic. Orii-Val, now signing off."
© 2008 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved