The big power outage seems to be a good example of bad network design. I’ve heard that the New York area was nominally capable of drawing power from other sources (the mid-Atlantic area has been mentioned specifically) but that capability was lost when many circuit breakers tripped and had to be manually reset. In other words, the initial response caused those circuits to be overloaded, precluding a later response. In my opinion this is indicative of a bad design.

To see how this could happen, even in a system where the affected area as a whole is connected to alternate sources of power, let’s consider a very simple abstract example. An infinite number of more complex examples could be devised to add realism, but the illustrative value would be lost. Imagine for a moment that New York is divided into two zones, A and B. Zone A can draw power directly from suppliers X, Y, and Z. Zone B can also draw power directly from X, but can only get power from Y and Z through A. Both zones prefer to get their power from X, but what happens when X fails? All of the power for both A and B has to flow through A, which becomes overloaded and fails; now A and B are both cut off from their remaining sources of power (Y and Z).

A much better design would be for B to have its own path – not through A – to either Y or Z. When X fails, then, B can switch to its second power source without overloading A (which has problems of its own). To do so requires some coordination, so that B doesn’t switch to the source that still requires it to go through A, but that’s a well-understood and solvable problem.

Without knowing the specifics of what happened to cause the current power outage, I’ll bet that at some level Mohawk/Niagara corresponds to X in our example. When it failed, in the absence of a properly designed power grid and/or the coordination mentioned in the previous paragraph, that caused an inappropriate response which made the problem much worse than it really needed to be.