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Interview With Marshall Brain

Aired August 15, 2003 - 13:18   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well President Bush says it's a wake- up call. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson says it's a third world grid. While powerful officials try to figure out why the current power system is outdated, all of us are just trying to figure out how the heck it works.
Our guest Marshall Brain is founder -- yes, Brain -- is founder of the Web site HowStuffWorks.com. He has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. And he has a pretty, I guess you could say, witty Web site. Marshall, thanks for being with us.

MARSHALL BRAIN, HOWSTUFFWORKS.COM: Hi, Kyra. How are you doing today?

PHILLIPS: Good, very good. Well we've having technical problems of our own so we've got you on the phone with us, I apologize about that.

But let's go to your Web site and just take look at this, I guess, explanation that you've developed on the Web site. And you sort of explain how everything works, from the power plant all the way into our home. So kind of take us through the steps of how our power gets to us.

BRAIN: Well at the high level, it's really a very simple system. It starts with a power plant that produces enough power for 100,000 houses or something like that. You have to get that power to the houses so you send the power down transmission lines. Those are the huge towers you see as you're driving down the freeway or something.

Then it breaks off the transmission lines into substations so that it can be distributed to a neighborhood. Then a wire comes past your house, either on a pole or underground. And it gets stepped down one more time to house voltage and it appeared in your house.

So there's the power plant, the wires, the transformers, and a little bit of control, and that's really all there is to the power grid.

PHILLIPS: All right, so, Marshall, as we look at this picture here and how you just explained the system -- and now the talk is that the grid was -- there was too much -- it was overcompensated for. So where in this system -- how would that have happened? Does it start at the power plant or another power plant?

BRAIN: When we see a big failure like this, a collapse, there's one of two things that has happened. Either a power plant among the series of power plants on the grid has gone offline suddenly, or a big transmission line has gone offline suddenly.

And when that happens, either the other power plants or other transmission lines have to step up to handle the load. And if they're at capacity as well, they don't have any excess that they can use to step up, so they fail as well. And you get the cascade we saw last night where it goes across a huge area.

PHILLIPS: OK. And what happened to the firewalls?

BRAIN: Well, in the 1977 blackout, for example, it happened in such a way that a person could see what was occurring and could cut New York City away.

So in 1977, only New York City went dark. New Jersey still had power, everything around it still had power. In a case like this, it happened so quickly, or it happens in an area with so much congestion that you can't build a wall around it and it spreads outward before anyone can react.

PHILLIPS: All right, so, Marshall, now we're looking at a graphic with all the different power grids. One, two, three, four, OK. The Western Interconnect, the Texas Interconnect, Eastern Interconnect and Quebec Interconnect. The reason being -- for example, here in Atlanta, we didn't have a problem, we didn't have a power outage. That's because we are in a different interconnect. Is that right?

BRAIN: Well, it's because -- you can see Atlanta's in that Eastern Interconnect. It's because somewhere, you know on a state line or something, a person or a system was able to detect what was happening and cut the part that was failing away from the rest of the grid.

PHILLIPS: Looking at what happened, taking into account all the information that we know, why did you think this happened? Is it the massive heatwave?

BRAIN: Well, in a day like yesterday it's 95 degrees, it's 4:00 in the afternoon, the system's really running at its maximum capacity. And then something fails.

And because everything else is maxed out, there's no way for the whole grid to step up and provide more power to handle the thing that failed. And as power plants get overloaded, they take themselves off the grid rather than damage themselves. And it just gets worse and worse and cascades out from there.

PHILLIPS: Marshall Brain, your name fits you very well. Your Web site is HowStuffWorks.com. Pretty smart idea. We thank you for the 101 today.

BRAIN: Well, thanks, Kyra. have a good afternoon.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, Marshall.

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