Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An electrical blackout affecting more than thirty million people in the Northeast raised widespread concern and had implications for the design of power systems.

Summary of Event

One of the largest electric power failures in history began at 5:15 p.m. on November 9, 1965. The initiating cause was traced to a faulty circuit breaker at the Sir Adam Beck hydroelectric power plant Sir Adam Beck hydroelectric power plant in Queenston, Canada. This plant was part of a large, interconnected power system called the Canada-United States Eastern Canada-United States Eastern Interconnection region (CANUSE). An improbable sequence of events brought the whole network to a halt in ten minutes. From Boston to Buffalo, from Toronto to New York City, some thirty million people were left in the dark. Northeast blackout (1965) Power failures Power plants [kw]Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast (Nov. 9-10, 1965) [kw]New York City and the Northeast, Power Failure Blacks Out (Nov. 9-10, 1965) Northeast blackout (1965) Power failures Power plants [g]North America;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] [g]United States;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] [g]Canada;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] [c]Energy;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] [c]Disasters;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 9-10, 1965: Power Failure Blacks Out New York City and the Northeast[08670] Wagner, Robert F., Jr. Ward, J. Harris Swidler, Joseph C.

When the power went off on a Tuesday evening during the rush hour, some 600,000 New Yorkers were instantly stranded in subway trains. Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., mobilized all available police officers and firefighters to evacuate passengers. By midnight, 90 percent of them had been guided along dark tunnels to the nearest exits.

In New York’s skyscrapers, thousands of elevators came to a stop. In the Empire State Building, the tallest office building in the world at that time, people were trapped between floors in thirteen elevators. Six elevators were emptied by ladders let down from above. Reaching the other elevators required breaking down the walls of the elevator shafts.

Hospital and airport personnel discovered their vulnerability during a power failure. Babies were delivered and several surgeries had to be completed by candlelight. Lights went out at airport runways, and the control towers lost radio contact with incoming planes. Fortunately, major accidents were avoided, because air-traffic controllers were able to establish telephone communication with alternate airports to divert planes beyond the blackout region.

Automobile traffic became snarled when stoplights ceased to function. In a spirit of camaraderie, volunteers directed traffic at street corners. People waited in long lines to make telephone calls. Commuters who were stranded in the city slept in hotel lobbies, bus stations, and theaters. It could have been a time of panic, but most New Yorkers responded to the blackout with helpful cooperation.

The power failure was estimated to have cost many millions of dollars in lost business. It endangered the health and safety of the affected population and demonstrated how an act of sabotage, terrorism, or simple vandalism could immobilize a city or a whole region. To avoid a repetition of such a calamity, it became important to understand how an avalanche of power outages could result from one faulty circuit breaker at a relatively small power plant.

Electric power is measured in units of kilowatts. For example, ten 100-watt lightbulbs use 1,000 watts, or one kilowatt, of electricity. On the evening of the blackout, Consolidated Edison Consolidated Edison (ConEd) was supplying about 4.5 million kilowatts to New York City and its suburbs. ConEd has a modern energy control center located in Manhattan to determine which power plants in New England and southern Canada can provide this power most efficiently and cheaply. The needs of all the other energy users who are part of the interconnected network have to be continuously monitored by computer so that the system can respond quickly when the demand for electricity changes.

The energy control center record for November 9, 1965, showed that ConEd was generating 4.2 million kilowatts from its own plants and drawing about 300,000 kilowatts from other utility companies on the CANUSE network. It was a normal weekday evening with no indication of trouble ahead.

Four hundred miles north of New York City, the Sir Adam Beck power plant was supplying electricity to the Toronto area in southern Canada. Apparently, a faulty relay at the plant sensed an overload in one of six transmission lines and opened a circuit breaker in that line. The power was automatically rerouted to the other five transmission lines. Those lines, however, were already running close to their maximum capacity. The extra power caused them to become overloaded, which in turn opened their protective circuit breakers. With all six lines shut down, the lights went out in Toronto.

About 1.7 million kilowatts had been flowing north to Toronto. Almost instantaneously, all this power was rerouted south into the U.S. network. The resulting momentary power surge was felt all the way to New York City. Within two seconds, automatic safety devices shut down the main transmission line from Niagara to the northeastern United States. What had been a power surplus suddenly became a power deficit. The remaining generators in the New England system tried to pick up the extra load, but their capacity was overwhelmed. As protection from damage resulting from overheating, the generators automatically cut off from the network. An eighty-thousand-square-mile area was left without electricity.

This unprecedented systemwide blackout revealed some unanticipated defects. Even though the power lines were not damaged, as they might have been after a tornado or an ice storm, it took more than four hours to restore power in Boston and nearly thirteen hours to regain power in New York City.

The operation of a medium-sized coal-burning power plant, which burns more than five hundred tons of coal per hour, requires considerable electric power. Large electric motors are needed to run the conveyor belts that carry the coal to the pulverizing machinery. More electricity is needed for the blower fans and the pollution control equipment. During normal operation, about 5 percent of the plant output is used to run its own machinery. To restart a plant after a shutdown, this power has to be obtained from elsewhere in the system. When a whole region is blacked out, however, such auxiliary power is not available.

Fortunately for New York City, one small generating plant on Staten Island had cut itself off from the overloaded network and was still running. It was used to restart a second plant and to restore power to its immediate area. In a similar way, the other plants one by one were brought back into service. Hydroelectric facilities, which are easier to restart because they involve only the flow of water through a turbine, came back online faster. By early the next morning, the CANUSE power grid was back in normal operation.

Significance

In the aftermath of the massive Northeast blackout of 1965, the Federal Power Commission Federal Power Commission (FPC) convened a panel of experts from power companies, universities, and government agencies to make recommendations for improving the reliability of electric service. Their report on prevention of power failures, issued in 1967, contains thirty-four suggested improvements.

To deal with unexpected power outages, the FPC report stated all airports and hospitals need to install or have immediate access to emergency generators. Also, public buildings should be equipped with emergency lighting in stairwells and elevators. Communication equipment should have backup battery power.

The report also stated that auxiliary power should be installed at coal- and oil-burning power plants to ensure rapid restarting if system power is lost. Availability of emergency power would have saved hours of time in service restoration after the Northeast blackout.

A coordinated method of load shedding, or a “brownout,” should be established to prevent the total loss of power in a region. For example, it may be necessary to cut off the electricity to a residential area temporarily so that power can be maintained in crowded downtown buildings or for mass transit. Another method of shedding some of the load is to reduce the voltage. With lower voltage, lights burn less brightly, stoves cook more slowly, and electric motors slow down. A brownout would be preferable to a complete blackout.

Before the 1965 Northeast power failure, the FPC had been urging electric utilities to form ever-larger regional power grids. The eventual goal was to form a single, interconnected national network. The FPC in 1964 had recommended “a reduction in generating reserve capacity from a current 25 percent to about 15 percent” by 1980. The argument for a single national grid was that it would permit the existing generating capacity to be used more efficiently, thus cutting new construction costs and holding down power rates for consumers.

Many of the recommendations from the 1967 FPC report have been adopted. The technology of computerized control systems, high-voltage transmission lines, and integrated network design has been improved. Better coordination of regional planning by electric utility companies has increased the reliability of power systems during disturbances. Power outages will continue to happen as a result of weather, human error, or technical flaws. Despite all the precautions taken and the institution of regional grids, numerous significant blackouts have occurred in peak summer months in New York City such as those of July, 1977, July, 2002, and, even more significant, a major blackout in August, 2003, that affected more than 50 million people in southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. Utility regulators continue to be challenged to devise means of ensuring uninterrupted power supplies, preferably without building additional generating plants that might cause harm to the environment. Northeast blackout (1965) Power failures Power plants

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedlander, Gordon D. “Prevention of Power Failures: The Federal Power Commission Report of 1967.” Spectrum, February, 1968, 53-61. An informative overview of the three-volume report on prevention of electric power failures prepared by the FPC after the 1965 Northeast blackout. Recommendations to improve reliability are summarized and evaluated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lear, John. “The Night They Unplugged Society.” Saturday Review, December 4, 1965, 81-84. The author was science editor for Saturday Review. The article contains human-interest stories from the blackout, combined with nontechnical discussions of electric power generation, high-voltage transmission lines, and the vulnerability of overload protection devices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Lessons from Blackouts: A Look at Power Grids.” U.S. News and World Report, December 13, 1965, 98-100. The editors asked various electric utility companies to evaluate their experience with interconnected power networks extending over large areas. This article suggests a restudy of national power policy and makes suggestions for decreasing the risk of regional blackouts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. 1973. 25th anniversary ed. Point Roberts, Wash.: Hartley & Marks, 1999. A classic book that argues against growth as an indicator of progress. Very large organizations and oversized technological projects (such as electric power grids) eventually become unmanageable and impersonal. The author advocates more decentralized decision-making and smaller-scale technology. Thoughtful and provocative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Keeping the Lights On: The Federal Role in Managing the Nation’s Electricity. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004. Report of a hearing before the Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, September 10 and November 20, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Federal Power Commission. Prevention of Power Failures: An Analysis and Recommendations Pertaining to the Northeast Failure and the Reliability of U.S. Power Systems. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1967. This comprehensive three-volume report gives a detailed analysis of the Northeast power blackout of 1965, with recommendations for preventing future regional power failures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Theodore H. “What Went Wrong? Something Called 345 Kilovolts.” Life, November 19, 1965, 36-48. An informative article describing how the massive power failure affected millions of people in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. The author clarifies how the blackout happened and why it took so long to restore power. Photographs. Excellent overview, highly recommended.

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