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Power problems (posted 2003-08-24)

The power outage in parts of Canada and the US a little over a week ago didn't cause too many problems network-wise. (I'm sure the people who were stuck in elevators, had to walk down 50 flights of stairs or walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn or Queens have a different take on the whole thing.) The phone network in general also experienced problems, mostly due to congestion. The cell phone networks were hardly usable.

There was a 2% or so decline in the number of routes in the global routing table. The interesting thing is that not all of the 2500 routes dropped off the net immediately, but some did so over the course of three hours. This would indicate depleting backup power.

See the report by the Renesys Corporation for more details.

Following the outage there was (as always) a long discussion on NANOG where several people expressed surprise about how such a large part of the power grid could be taken out by a single failure. The main reason for this is the complexity in synchronizing the AC frequencies in different parts of the grid. Quebec uses high voltage direct current (HVDC) technology to connect to the surrounding grids, and wasn't affected.

In the mean time the weather in Europe has been exceedingly hot. This gives rise to cooling problems for many power plants as the river water that many of them use gets too warm. In Holland, power plants are allowed to increase the water temperature by 7 degrees Celsius with a maximum outlet temperature of 30 degrees. But the input temperature got as high as 28 degrees in some places. So many plants couldn't work at full capacity (even with temporary 32 degree permits), while electricity demand was higher than usual, also as a result of the heat. (The high loads were also an important contributor to the problems in the US and Canada as there was little reserve capacity in the distribution grids.) The plans for rolling blackouts were already on the table when the weather got cooler over the last week.

Moral of these stories: backup power is a necessity, and batteries alone don't hack it, as the outage lasted for three days in some areas.