Boston's Blackout Educates on the Need for Power Protection

December 03, 2012

  By Steve Anderson, Contributing Writer

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, news about power outages was just about everywhere in the New England area. A more recent New England blackout, however, had little to do with Sandy and more to do with a much more surprising cause which left a large swath of the Boston area just as dark.

The blackout in question struck a large portion of the Cambridge area, just across the Charles River from Boston and thus not only affecting Boston proper, but also a chunk of Kendall Square near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT (News - Alert)) as well as Harvard Square, leaving two of the world’s most prestigious universities partially hamstrung.

While much of the outage was resolved within a two hour period, it still posed threats such as individuals trapped in elevators, where calls to the police were made.

As for the cause of the blackout, it was related to something that most people believe power companies actually need to do more of: upgrading. Utility firm NStar was in progress of upgrading a transmission line, and in turn, took a main line out of service so that the upgrades could be performed.

So customers would notice minimal, if any, disruption, NStar routed power through a backup line, but while that was going on, a relay in the line "incorrectly sensed an abnormality,” which in turn prompted a shutdown. NStar managed to get power back on by the surprisingly simple –if not necessarily easy – fix of shutting down the relay in question.

While two hours without power isn't exactly a great hardship – it's not pleasant, but it's hardly death defying – it happened at about the worst possible time for NStar, who was already trying to live down not only a fire at a substation back in March, but also the impact of last year’s Tropical Storm Irene as well as the unexpected snowstorm in October.

At the same time, it's hard to fully fault NStar on this one; after all, the outage happened when they were engaging in upgrades that would make future outages less likely to happen overall. Admittedly, it's a bit ironic that an outage happened in the midst of trying to prevent them, but if one two-hour outage can prevent a six-hour outage later, most of us would likely take the two hours on the chin. Still, it's hoped that NStar keeps up with its upgrades so that tales of outages become fewer, farther between, and always lower in duration.

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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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