hortly after 4 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 14, the
power grid in New York State was operating with textbook efficiency,
briskly exporting 1,000 megawatts of electricity, roughly the output
of a large power plant, northward across the border to Ontario.
Several power plants were out of service in Canada, and New York was
helping answer the need.
Suddenly, the demand in Ontario nearly doubled, as parts of the
power grid to its south, in Michigan and Ohio, began to crumble.
Power then began streaming from New York to satisfy the unexpected
hunger for electricity on the other side of the border. And then the
unthinkable happened: the power flow abruptly reversed, and 1,500
megawatts blew southward in a kind of electrical hurricane on the
It all took 90 seconds, and turned what would have been a major
summer blackout in the Midwest into an epic mess that affected tens
of millions of people in the largest blackout in the nation's
As the investigation into the blackout continues, scientists and
engineers will be looking not just at where problems began in the
Midwest, where the failure of a number of power lines in Ohio
appears to have set everything in motion.
A central question to be answered is what exactly happened at the
border of New York and Canada — whether mechanical protective
devices at the extremely powerful electrical connection linking the
two countries failed or even had a chance to operate, and whether
the humans in charge could have done anything to anticipate or limit
This picture of the blackout's progression is based on
information made available by the New York Independent System
Operator, which manages the day-to-day flow of electricity on the
grid in the state, and industry officials who have been briefed by
New York officials say that they received no warning of the
approaching storm in time to make any manual adjustments to the grid
here that could have isolated the state and kept the blackness from
"It's almost like a wave crashing over a seawall," said an
industry representative who is familiar with the operations of the
northeastern power grid. "It was quick, real quick."
The stunning swiftness of the events defeated the state's
best-laid plans for handling such a crisis and keeping the lights on
for those millions of people. The grid collapsed here even though
New York — unlike other states, like California — has enough
power-generating capacity to satisfy its own demands without any
To explain how the blackout marched through the East Coast from
Ontario, investigators will look at everything from the settings on
relays — circuit breakers, in essence — on transmission lines
connecting the two countries, to potential breakdowns in
communications between different pieces of the power grid.
Already, the question of New York's fate — the state was supposed
to be safe from a cascading blackout — has become deeply
politicized. Democratic lawmakers as well as the state's attorney
general have cast blame on Gov. George E. Pataki for a failure of
vision and investment in the state's power system. Mr. Pataki has
dismissed the criticism and urged that the federal Department of
Energy complete its investigation before blame is assigned.
Hearings on New York's performance on Aug. 14 are scheduled for
Wednesday in Albany.
Whatever the ultimate sequence of events, the last stage of the
blackout was doubly surprising to many officials, given New York's
ability to produce enough electricity to isolate itself from the
grid and yet still stay powered.
In fact, New York should be able to isolate itself and act
independently, said Gavin Donohue, executive director of Independent
Power Producers of New York, the association of all the power plant
owners. New York can generate more than 34,000 megawatts; peak
demand is around 32,000, and that day, they were running at