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Experts Discuss Logistics Of U.S./Canada Power Grid

Aired August 14, 2003 - 19:47   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Very interesting, John. We will continue to try to get some independent confirmation of that. But again, it underscores just how interconnected this entire grid system is, and each of our countries are, between the U.S. and Canada.
But we've been focusing so much of our attention over the past three, almost four hours now on New York City. We want to take you outside of New York City and show you how some people across the region are dealing with this power outage. This is a shot we've got coming in from Cleveland Hopkins Airport. As you can see there, not much activity in the sky. There is a ground stop for all planes there at that airport. Hard to imagine what life must be like for the people who are stuck inside the terminals. We don't even know if the terminals themselves have any power. Last we checked, they did not.

These are the scenes we're getting in from Detroit. The airport there also affected. However, these people have much more immediate concerns, if you will. These are people waiting in line for ice, these lines forming rather immediately at points like this all across that city.

Now, across the border there in Toronto, you saw street scenes there. There you see life at a crawl there, literally, just about. You see people there filling the streets. Police officials out there, as well, trying to keep some order.

Scenes here now coming in from Hartford, Connecticut. No idea just how long ago these shots were taken, but we know that night is falling. And there will be a whole host of different concerns once these cities do get dark, if power is not restored very soon.

We've been hearing officials like Governor George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg of New York saying that power will be back within a matter of hours, perhaps as short as four hours from now. But the initial expectation had been that power could have been back on in New York City before nightfall. We're watching to see if that happens.

But there is so much that has to happen, there is so much choreography between all the different pars of the so-called grid that have to take place before power can be turned back on. All we know about electricity -- most of us, that is -- is that you flip the switch and the light comes on. Every now and then, you get a bill for it. So how do overloaded power grids and cascading power failures fit into all of this?

Well, let's do a little grid talk right now with Georgia Tech's Sakis Meliopoulos. He is a professor of electrical engineering, and he's been listening to all the coverage this evening. And I want to first start off with the report John King just mentioned coming in from the Reuters News Service, about officials in Canada saying that they believe this may have all been started by a lightning strike.

SAKIS MELIOPOULOS, GEORGIA TECH: That is correct. In that area that they mentioned, there is a major generation facility and a lot of transmission lines coming to the same place. And if that system went out, then that would trigger a lot of cascading failures. And that explains the widespread blackout of the area.

HARRIS: Now, our general understanding would probably fall along the lines of fuses and lines, that sort of thing, the kind of thing we have in our homes and our cars. Explain to us just how this grid is constructed. How is it that a lightning strike somewhere north of the border here could actually cause this widespread regional blackout?

MELIOPOULOS: Yes, well, basically, the grid serves the purpose of transferring the electricity from generation to electric load centers, such as New York City, Cleveland, so on. And if the transmission lines go out because of lightning, and so on, there is no connection between the generators and the load centers, and that generates the blackout. And of course, when (UNINTELLIGIBLE) like this happens, then other transmission lines become overloaded and they trip out, they fail, and we have a cascading effect that takes a large portion of the grid out.

HARRIS: Now, if it is proven that it was all due to a lightning strike there in Canada, your initial instincts, it turns out, will have been correct. When we were off camera, I was asking you if your initial thoughts were like those of many others, that perhaps this was something that was born of terrorism. You said there was -- you didn't think so. That was not your original estimation.

MELIOPOULOS: My first thought was -- did not go at all at terrorist act. Basically, the system is at risk, and there is -- the risk has increased because of two factors recently. The load in the system has been increasing, as everybody's using electricity. At the same time, in the last decade, because of the energy crisis we experienced, and so on, there is less and less investment in the transmission system. So the system remains the same. And as the load increases, it is overstretched, and especially in the early afternoon hours, as this event happened. And there is increases of having more blackouts.

HARRIS: So in your estimation, this was something that was bound to happen. Sakis Meliopoulos, thank you very much, Professor. We appreciate your expertise.

Let's go back now to our Wolf Blitzer, who is there on the streets there in Manhattan and keeping his eye on what's happening there, as night begins to fall and concerns will have to start mounting, Wolf, about what is going to happen if power is not restored very soon.

BLITZER: Well, it's a serious situation here, Leon. I want to show our viewers what's happening behind me. I'm going to have our photographer pan over and take a look at this. You see fire engines that have emerged here on 9th Avenue here in Manhattan. Apparently, there are some small fires that are breaking out around the city. People are -- as it gets dark, they're using candles to make sure that they can see where they are. There's no electricity. There are no lights.

And this underscores some of the dangers that potentially are out there because if you have candles and if you're not very careful, if there's wind or whatever, if you spill one of those candles, there could be a small fire or, God forbid, even a bigger fire. And right behind me, there is clearly some sort of fire that has erupted, we're told in a small bedroom. It's clearly going to be under control. It doesn't look all that serious.

But it does underscore a serious problem as it gets dark here in New York City and other areas of the northeast where there have been power shortages, obviously. And people are going to start using candles if they don't have batteries, they don't have flashlights, if they don't have power generators, emergency power generators. They're going to go back and start using candles. Just a warning to our viewers who may be watching, who may be aware of this, to just be very, very careful if you're using candles. Make sure they don't spill over. Make sure they don't do anything along those lines.


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