I’m not sure when I learned about the San Francisco and New York City outages yesterday. We’d had our own spate of minor outages and sundry tasks to deal with. But then I read news musing of whether the outages on opposite sides of the country were related, and declarations that this was evidence of a decaying infrastructure. New York Governor Marion Cuomo has ordered an investigation, but whatever the outcome, I doubt anyone will tell him or the news organizations the one thing they don’t want to hear:
Seriously. Stuff happens. Murphy drops by and says “Hey, have you heard about my laws?” The simple fact will is if anything can go wrong, it will. Anything.
One afternoon we were working in a substation and needed to cut off the electricity to some equipment. To minimize outages, we connected that feeder (we call them circuits) to an adjacent one through what’s known as a transfer bus. The moment we did, the recloser – a device roughly similar to a breaker – begin to vibrate. The engineer opened it, cutting off electricity to both feeders. Across the woods we heard a boom. A couple of linemen rode toward the noise and we all scratched our heads wondering why tying the circuits together caused a fault.
In a few minutes we had our answer. It had nothing to do with our tying the circuits together. At the very moment we connected them, a fox squirrel landed on an insulator in such a way as to cause a dead short. The result was one fried fox squirrel and almost half the customers on that substation without power. Still, we separated the circuits, restored power, and carefully tied the circuits together. This time no problem. We isolated the equipment, did the job, and put everything back in normal operation in maybe half an hour or less.
Talk to anyone who’s worked at a utility for a while, and you’ll hear a stuff happens story. Like the time when a simple substation job turned into a several hour saga as one thing happened after another in an improvable series of events. Or the time some equipment went bad just hours after a maintenance crew serviced it. Or any number of oddities that shouldn’t happen, but did.
Sometimes it can be deadly. I know of an instance where a ROW maintenance worker died when something fell on a limb, causing it to fly up and go straight into his heart. There was a lengthy investigation on that one, not only because of the fatality but to prevent such an accident from happening again. The disturbing thing that came out of that, best as I can recall, was there is very little you can do to prevent a freak accident like that. Fatalistic? No. Sometimes things go wrong and you can do nothing to prevent it.
I don’t know if this will turn out to be the case in San Francisco and New York City. Won’t be surprised if it does. We do know the San Francisco outage was caused when a recloser failed and caught fire. No word on why, or the cause of the New York City outage.
What I do know is that anything built by man is subject to fail. Anything. You can try to plan for it and design systems to minimize damage and disruptions, but in the end something odd is bound to happen. A fox squirrel can knock out power; power can fail in two major cities on the same day. Doesn’t matter the profession or technology: Stuff happens. You can count on it.