Saturday, November 07, 2009

DC area utilities have "real life" systems problem this week: Why is DC area power so unreliable?


A few real life computer problems at utilities marked the lives of DC area residents this week.

In Montgomery County, MD, the computer system that cycles traffic lights inbound broke down on some arteries, and was out of commission for two days, as traffic engineers had to reset hundreds of lights manually. The Washington Post story is by Ashley Halsey III URL link here.

The Metro had power supply problems that caused the software system that updates Smart Cards and some other ticketing functions to fail.

Then in Arlington VA Dominion Power had a bizarre outage yesterday with an “animal on the line”. It’s hard to believe that a squirrel could disable the lights on much of Arlington’s main artery, Glebe Road for so long. Maybe a bobcat. Bears have been seen in the DC suburbs recently. But much of the outage was fixed in about ninety minutes, whereas residents in the Halls Hill section (an area that was walled off in the 1940s during segregation) and some adjoin sections were out for six areas. This area has undergone at least three major outages this year during fair weather, and sometimes power comes back to “new houses” in the area but not to others. There seems to be some inadequate metering transformer wiring that causes residents not to get power back quickly. Sad to say, this may be a deplorable remnant from the days of segregation and discrimination before the Civil Rights movement of the 560s. The vestiges of the past remain.

The Dominion Power website does allow residents to monitor outages, if they have battery-powered laptops and wireless Internet. The link is here. It’s worth exploring; there are some videos showing how power distribution and restoration works. I see that there are still some remaining spotty outages in northern Virginia Saturday morning, for no apparent reason.

I did not encounter constant power problems in either Dallas or Minneapolis, where systems are newer and, given the prairie geography, there are fewer trees. Actually, I had two sets of job interviews in the 1980s with Texas Utilities as a contractor and just missed getting offers. One of them had to do with the Glen Rose Commanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, which I visited in 1982 on, of all things, a Sierra Club weekend trip. They sounded like a good place to work.

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