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What Caused the 2019 New York Blackout? Infrastructure.

On Saturday night in New York City a power outage struck Midtown Manhattan, hitting Hell’s Kitchen north to Lincoln Center and from Fifth Avenue west to the Hudson River. The blackout darkened the huge, electric billboards of Times Square, forced Broadway shows to cancel performances, and even disabled some subway lines. But what caused it? From a report: According to reports, the outage was caused by a transformer fire within the affected region. Power was fully restored by early the following morning. […] Saturday’s blackout was most likely caused by a disabled transformer at an area substation. There are at least 50 of those in New York City, which are fed in turn by at least 24, higher-voltage transmission substations. When it comes to power, New York is unusual because of the city’s age and the density of its population, both residential and commercial. That produces different risks and consequences. In Atlanta, where I live, storms often down trees, which take out aboveground power lines. In the West, where wildfires are becoming more common, flames frequently dismantle power infrastructure (sometimes the power lines themselves cause the fires). But across the whole of New York City — not just Manhattan — more than 80 percent of both customers and the electrical load are serviced by underground distribution from area substations. That makes smaller problems less frequent, but bigger issues more severe.

When a transformer goes down in a populous place like Manhattan, it has a greater impact than it would on Long Island, say, or in Westchester County, where density is lower. The amount of power that central Manhattan uses on a regular basis also contributes to that impact. Times Square, the theater district, hundreds of skyscrapers — it’s a substantial load. In New York’s case, supplying that load is not usually the problem. Generating facilities can be located near or far away from where their power is used, and New York City draws power from a couple dozen plants. Some of it is imported from upstate. But much of New York’s power is still generated locally, in large part at plants along the waterfront of Queens. Those plants are older, and more susceptible to disruption from local calamities, especially severe weather. When peak demand surges — most common during heat waves, such as the ones that struck the region in 2006 and 2011 — the older, less efficient generating stations have a harder time keeping up, and brownouts or blackouts become more likely.

[…] But new risks associated with climate change, cyberwarfare, and other factors haven’t necessarily been accounted for in the design and operation of utility infrastructure. The perils build on one another. Climate change amplifies the frequency of heat waves, which increases electrical load, which puts greater pressure on infrastructure. At the same time, it increases the likelihood of superstorms that can cause flooding, fire, and other disasters that might disrupt nodes in the network. When utility operators designed their equipment years or decades ago, they made assumptions about load, storm surge, and other factors. Those estimates might no longer apply.


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