By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
CNHI News Service
Some say it’s the most complicated machine ever built. We rely on it not just each day, but each moment of each day. It reaches into our homes, factories, offices and stores. And at times it’s surprisingly fragile and subject to massive failure.
I’m talking about the electrical grid. We’ve recently seen it tested by Superstorm Sandy. I’ve been reading up on it in several sources, including in an interesting book appropriately called The Grid by Phillip F. Schewe.
I think of the grid as that miraculous machine that starts with energy sources like coal or water behind a dam and ends up with a highly flexible form of energy that we can use in myriad different ways. We run our heating systems, lights, computers, stoves, washing machines and more on electricity.
Occasionally a downed limb of a tree takes out a power line in a neighborhood. Usually such an event is nothing more than a local and temporary inconvenience. But the complexity of the grid is enormous, and sometimes that complexity has led to cascading series of events from an initial small problem leading to major regional outages. And that’s been the case even without problems like hurricanes.
There are several different examples of major grid outages not related to mega-storms. Their causes and history differ. But a recent one occurred on August 14th of 2003. People in eight states and two Canadian provinces were plunged into a world without electricity when the grid failed.
Everyone suffered, some more than others. Some people were stuck in elevators, some in subway trains. It was a hot day in many places, and air conditioners immediately stopped working. Many people in New York City who relied on the mass transit system couldn’t get home – some slept in public parks and the steps of public buildings.