An NYU Tandon Professor Looks Back at the Historic Blackout of 2003

satellite images comparing light before and after blackout of 2003
Satellite images show light activity the night before the blackout (left) compared to the night of the blackout on August 14, 2003 (right). Imagery provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

Many New Yorkers remember where they were 15 years ago, on August 14, 2003, just after 4 pm. That afternoon, millions of people in the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and areas of Canada were plunged into darkness in one of the biggest blackouts in the history of the electrical system. Computers switched off without warning, thousands of subway riders had to be evacuated from the 600 trains left stalled on the tracks, and firemen rescued office workers trapped in elevators.

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Yury Dvorkin — whose work focuses on smart electric power grids — sat down to answer questions about the event and the work going on at Tandon to prevent similar outages, mitigate their effects, and speed recovery in their aftermath.


Q: Do you remember where you were when the 2003 blackout occurred?

A: At that time, I was still a high school student in Moscow, Russia. The blackout that affected me the most occurred there in 2005 and caused the cancellation of my prom, which was very disappointing. 

That brings up an important point. Of course, New Yorkers consider that blackout a significant event because it affected them personally, and the situation was made worse by the fact that it happened just two years after 9/11, so initially there was widespread fear that terrorism was involved. But blackouts happen all over the world, and in fact, in September 2003, just a month after the incident in the U.S. and Canada, an outage hit Switzerland and Italy that caused more than €1 billion of damage and left about 56 million people without power.


Q: In news coverage of the time, journalists reported that the grid that distributes electricity to the eastern United States became overloaded, precipitating the blackout. Is that an accurate explanation?

A:  It’s an overly simplified explanation. There are always multiple factors that lead to a major blackout. Obviously, the basic physical cause was that the grid became overloaded in certain parts. However, as it was figured out later, there was also a software bug in the alarm system at a local energy control room, so operators were not timely aware that they needed to redistribute load after multiple transmission lines suddenly tripped. So what should have remained a minor, quite local and manageable event led to the collapse of the entire grid.

Additionally, you can’t discount the role human error can play. Having experienced, properly trained personnel is key in reacting to an overload in a timely, efficient manner, but chances are good that someone monitoring the grid system will see only one blackout during their entire career. That means they’re not likely to have first-hand, real-world knowledge of how to recognize and what to do in this situation. 


Q: Has our electrical system become more resilient since then?

A: Although sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between reliability and resilience. Resiliency refers to a system’s ability to bounce back after an incident, so it’s fair to consider the electrical grid relatively resilient. Once the power is back on, there are usually not long-term repercussions. Critical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes can quickly turn to backup generators so there’s no disruption in service. Of course, it causes trouble and inconvenience, but stranded commuters eventually make their way home, and even my prom back in 2005 ended up being rescheduled.


Q: What new technologies are being used to improve the overall system?

A: We are seeing more microgrids that, in cases of emergencies, can disconnect from the main grid and operate autonomously. That means that in the event of a storm or other crisis, such microgrids can, for example, be powered by residential generators, batteries, or solar panels.

Another exciting prospect is mobile storage — for example, on trucks, which could travel to wherever power is needed (see below). There’s a good market for those because they can be used not only during a crisis but on a day-to-day basis, making the cost-benefit ratio favorable.

SEARCHing for Solutions

At Tandon, Dvorkin runs the Smart Energy Research (SEARCH) Group, which is focused on the integration of emerging smart grid technologies and improving power grid efficiency, reliability, and resiliency. A recent grant from the National Science Foundation addresses an urgent societal need: reducing the impact of natural disasters on power grids in light of the increasing frequency and damage of hurricane strikes in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions of the U.S.

One way to enhance the ability of power grid operators to withstand such disasters, he explains, is to ensure the availability of flexible backup resources that can be deployed in advance, preventing critical equipment failures during the disaster and accelerating post-disaster grid restoration.

He and his group members are thus developing and validating the concept of mobile energy storage (ES) units that can provide backup flexibility to power grids. Provided with a timely disaster scenario, these units can be moved using public transportation routes from their stationary locations to locations where they can enhance grid resiliency.

Using real-life predictions and data from Hurricane Harvey, they hope to design a data-driven approach to enabling the optimal routing, reconfiguration,  and control of the mobile ES units, and they are working to develop a new electrochemical ES mechanism capable of generating two transportable energy carriers: redox-active species (such as those used in flow batteries, which provide energy by dissolving two chemical components in liquids contained within the system) and hydrogen, which is available in refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Power Up!

Dvorkin’s SEARCH Group falls under the umbrella of Tandon’s Power Lab, an academic and research program with a focus on such topics as power generation, transmission and distribution, electric machines, electric drives, power Electronics, electromagnetic propulsion and design, distributed generation and smart grid technology.

Other members of the Power Lab include:

  • Associate Professor Dariusz Czarkowski, a widely published expert on intelligent power supply in wireless sensors, the mitigation of voltage disturbances caused by the non-linear operation of massive electrical mode, and numerous other areas
  • Associate Professor Francisco de Leon, who was elevated to IEEE Fellow in recognition of his contributions to adaptive signal processing and radar systems — areas of importance in both military and civilian arenas — and who is the co-inventor of the HIGH Efficiency Shielded Toroidal (HIGHEST) Transformer, a cleaner, safer, more efficient, and cost-effective medium-voltage distribution transformer
  • Professor Zivan Zabar, whose research activities encompass a wide range of applications for power electronics, electric drives, and power systems in general and who holds several patents