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Blackouts: A History

Blackouts: A History

Blackouts: A History (View larger version)

By: Patrick J. Kiger

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Since well into the 20th century, when regional power grids in the U.S.'s lower 48 states were completed, Americans have come to expect an uninterrupted supply of electricity to power everything from factories to traffic lights to household appliances.  But that has only made it all the more disconcerting when large parts of the system have broken down, which happens with surprising frequency. In the U.S. and Canada, there were 57 breakdowns each involving at least 30,000 customers between 1965 and 2009, according to a paper published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical professional group.  Here are some of the biggest blackouts in that period that were caused mostly by grid failure, rather than by natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Nov. 9, 1965: An errant setting on a protective device near Niagara Falls started a cascading outage that cut off power for nearly 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada. It took 13 hours to fully restore electricity. 

July 13, 1977: A lightning strike caused transmission failures and shut down lines, causing the Indian Point No. 3 nuclear generating plant in New York State to go offline. A second lightning strike compounded the damage by knocking out two more important lines, causing a cascade of surges and overloads, which were compounded by human error. Nine million people in New York City lost power for up to 26 hours.

Dec. 22, 1982:  High winds knocked a transmission tower into another tower in the West, setting off a dominoes-like effect that caused three other towers to fall as well, and those struck two other power lines. At that point, a cascading failure led to five million people in the western U.S. losing power.

July 2-3, 1996:  A power line in Idaho overheated and sagged into a tree, tripping a protective device.  Other relays tripped two Wyoming coal plants. Ultimately, two million people in the U.S., Canada and Mexico lost power for up to several hours.

Aug. 10, 1996: Several power lines in Oregon and Washington short-circuited when they brushed against trees, causing 13 hydroelectric turbines at the McNary Dam to fail. As a result, 7.5 million customers lost power in seven U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and part of Mexico for a period that ranged from a few minutes to six hours.

July 25, 1998:  A lighting strike in Minnesota caused a power line to fail, which in turn caused other lines to overload.  When a second lightning bolt hit another power line, the cumulative result was a cascading failure that cut off the entire northern portion the Midwest from the Eastern grid. About 52,000 people in Midwestern states and Canada lost power for up to 19 hours.

Aug. 14, 2003:  After four high voltage power lines in northern Ohio brushed against trees and failed, a computer error compounded the effects, resulting in a cascade of failures that left 50 million people without power across the U.S. and Canada for as long as two days. The biggest blackout in North American history caused billions in economic damage and contributed to at least 11 deaths. 

Sept. 8, 2011:  A technician’s mistake on some switching equipment led to an outage in California and Arizona that deprived 2.7 million people of electricity for up to 12 hours.

11 comments
Lynn Allen
Lynn Allen

The purpose of government is to make secure the essentials for a society.  In the past, our government created REA (Rural Electrification Authority), sewage systems, health initiatives, and many other efforts for our communal safety and advancement.  If we could redirect our government and especially the military back to these goals, we would all have independent power and safe & secure utilities, both electric & water. I have lived off the gird for over 30 years.  Photo electric panels 30 years old are still working just fine, and a couple small 10 pound windmills provide us with electric for the home, and to pump water.  I am much safer than people supplied at a power grid that is failing.  L

I call for less planes and tanks and battle ships and more independent infrastructure.

T.c. Mete Sensoy
T.c. Mete Sensoy

Try to be a HUMAN ...

Don't buy a porch house from 48.floor ..try to be close to ground try to touch soil,,,

Don't buy to frozen fruits which is coming from 100 and 1000 miles away... Produce and eat local fruit ....

don't distort our world with cement cities .... don't kill your self

Don't forget we are human not a robot ,we don't need electricity for living all we need  natural life condition...

Don't afraid from soil , touch it work with it ... I am sure you will like it....

don't worry about electricity you don't need it..... :) 

Laurie Brandt
Laurie Brandt

Yes, our enemies will take advantage of this. Read Amerika by Pouns prolog pp.1-5 1987.  or view the ABC 1987 mini series based on the book.

John Kalawak
John Kalawak

52,000 people without power for 19 hours is newsworthy? That happens several times every winter in a snowy state.

Linda Morrison
Linda Morrison

What about the northeast ice storm of October 2011?  Trees downed so many power lines that 2 million people were without power.  Some for over a week.   I was without power for a week.   There are still alot of trees near power lines...it could happen again.

Andy Nguyen
Andy Nguyen

there's no point in filming a blackout ten days later if you can't recharge your camera.

Tom Johnstan
Tom Johnstan

Don't forget the Hurricane Sandy in the NE and Storm Alfred back in 2011 to the NE which knocked out power for weeks in some areas of CT. People were not prepared including the power companies who had not considered the possibility of an ice storm weighing down power lines and overgrown tree limbs falling and knocking out power.

Ken L.
Ken L.

Loosing electricity is bad enough but I think most people forget about one of the fundamental things electricity does for us.  Water, it is brought up from the ground and piped to our houses.  When water stops flowing, death could be 3 days away for a lot of people.  Dehydration is a terrible way to go.  Some will chance drinking bad water and die from disease or poisoned water.