"It's hard to imagine how anyone could believe that -- in the United States -- we should learn to cope with blackouts," said University of Minnesota Professor Massoud Amin, a leading expert on the U.S. electricity grid.
Amin supports construction of a nationwide "smart grid" that would avert blackouts and save billions of dollars in wasted electricity.
In a nutshell, a smart grid is an automated electricity system that improves the reliability, security and efficiency of electric power. It more easily connects with new energy sources, such as wind and solar, and is designed to charge electric vehicles and control home appliances via a so-called "smart" devices.
You might say Amin's connection with electricity began in New York City with a bolt of lightning.
In July 1977, Amin was a 16-year-old high school student visiting from his native Iran when lightning triggered a 24-hour blackout that cut power to nine million.
As he and his father walked near their Midtown Manhattan hotel, they were shocked to see looters smash their way into an electronics store less than 20 yards down the street.
Amin recalls feeling violated by the ugly scene -- and wondering if the nation's infrastructure was in danger of collapse. "... not just the electric grid that underpins our lives," he said, "but also the human condition."
More than 30 years later, the United States is still "operating the most advanced economy in the world with 1960s and 70s technology," said Amin. Failing to modernize the grid, he said, will threaten the U.S. position as an economic super power.
On a hot July night in 1977, the lights went out in New York City. The purr of air conditioners, cooling millions of New Yorkers, was replaced by stultifying silence-and then the sound of breaking glass. Faced with the second blackout in twelve years, New Yorkers responded with resilience as well as violence. Many stories emerged from the night of July 13th that revealed New Yorkers' divergent feelings about the city in which they lived. In some places, neighbors helped neighbors, and strangers helped strangers. Yet, at the same time, neighborhoods throughout New York exploded into violence. Stores were ransacked, looted and destroyed. Buildings were set ablaze. And the police, for the most part, stood helpless. In these stark contradictions, an unusual yet definitive moment left its mark on New York history-the night the lights went out.
Well-seasoned after the 1965 blackout, many New Yorkers took to the streets in search of friends, neighbors, candles, and most importantly, an explanation. In some communities, people found solace in the streets, where they swapped stories, chatted with strangers, and enjoyed an unelectrified nightlife. In Greenwich Village, for example, the streets became an improvised festival as people strolled out to witness the city without power. Some listened to news reports on battery-powered transistor radios, and all wondered when the lights would return.
In other parts of the city the experience was starkly different. News broadcasts reported outbreaks of violence, looting, and fires. Areas of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx experienced the most damage, where thousands of people took to the streets and smashed store windows looking for TVs, furniture, or clothing. In one report, 50 cars were stolen from a car dealership in the Bronx. The police made 3,776 arrests, although from all accounts, many thousands escaped before being caught. 1,037 fires burned throughout the City, six times the average rate, while the fire department also responded to 1,700 false alarms. . . By 9:41 p.m., New Jersey's lighted shoreline stood in stark contrast to the darkened skyline of Manhattan. All five New York City boroughs, as well as areas north in Westchester County, were plunged into darkness. Successive lightning strikes just to the north of the City knocked out vital power lines feeding its massive power grid. With each lightning strike (there were four in total, the first one at 8:37 p.m.), neighboring electric utility companies in New Jersey, New England and Long Island were faced with a difficult choice-whether to remain interconnected with the city's power company, Con Edison, thereby providing it with the electricity it so badly needed while risking possible damage to their own systems, or to protect their systems and maintain power for their customers by "opening" (disconnecting) the transmission lines that connected them to the massive power loss in the City. Before most system operators had time to choose, automated equipment reacted to the sudden change in system conditions and "tripped out" all ties to Con Edison except those from Long Island. By 9:21 p.m., Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), overloaded by power demands of the City, opened its ties to Con Ed as well. The city's power grid had become and "island" of electricity, separated from all outside sources of generation. Within minutes New York descended into darkness.
As minutes passes into hours, New Yorkers looked to Con Edison for an explanation and a quick resolution to the blackout. Con Edison claimed the blackout was caused by a natural phenomenon over which they had no control. It was an "act of God," stated Con Edison chairman Charles Luce. Despite Con Edison's efforts to deflect blame from itself, the City, led by Mayor Abraham Beame, launched an all-out attack on the power company, claiming it was guilty of "… [at] the very least gross negligence-and at the worst something far more serious." Beame, along with other local and state officials, could not fathom how four lightning bolts could effectively cripple the nation's largest city. They were not alone. New Yorkers, too, questioned Con Edison's explanation. As looters, vandals, and arsonists endangered neighborhoods, pressure mounted on Con Edison to re-light the City. While the lights would not be turned on in some neighborhoods for another twenty-five hours, the blackout led many to question the reliability of New York's power system. . .
The 1977 Blackout came during a troubled time in New York City. The City was under tremendous financial stress, forcing government officials to cut back city services. These cutbacks fell most heavily on New York's working poor communities, since many relied on public services to ease financial hardships in a time of deep economic recession. Increased crime, which had risen dramatically in the previous decade, also added to the crisis. The summer of 1977 was known as the "Summer of Sam," named after David Berkowitz's nationally publicized murder rampage which sent the City into a state of constant fear verging on panic. When the lights went out on July 13th, unleashing what Time magazine called a "night of terror," New Yorkers wondered if their worst fears had finally come true. In a mixed metaphor that expressed his mixed feelings, one New Yorker asked, "if New York is the Big Apple, then why am living in the pits?"
Hmm. Bad economy. Urban lumpenproletariat with a sense of grievance. First responders overwhelmed.