Here’s an interesting look at an issue that can cause a lot of chaos. Notably, the increasing use and development of microgrids, which are a perfect fit with decentralized energy sources such as wind and solar, is one key solution to blackouts, as is the development of “smarter” grids.
Post updated extensively on November 27, 2012.
Blackouts can affect millions of people. They can last for days or even weeks, causing chaos throughout cities and entire regions. They often occur following natural disasters, and can add to the damage caused by the original disaster.
Here is a look at some of the most powerful blackouts in history:
India Blackout, July 2012
July was a bad month for India as the country experienced its worst blackout ever. 670 million people were affected — that’s more than two times the population of the United States. The outdated electrical grid was blown due to the large number of people using air conditioners and other electrical appliances.
The Metro shut down for several hours and people were forced to deal with the oppressive heat as the sun came up. It was restored quickly but a second outage soon followed and this was also widespread.
Java–Bali Blackout, August 2005
This blackout in the middle of August 2005 caused Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia (the fourth most populated country in the world), to lose power, as well as several other cities and most areas of Java. In total, approximately 100 million people were affected. That’s approximately 1/3 the population of the United States, and almost half the population of Indonesia.
Southern Brazil, March 1999
Southern Brazil was hit by what was the largest blackout in history at the time back in March 1999. It was isolated to Southern Brazil but it affected approximately 75-97 million people. A lightning strike started this blackout, which brought down the largest power plant in the world at the time, Itaipu. “In Rio the military police placed 1,200 men in the streets to avoid looting. In São Paulo, traffic authorities announced they closed the city’s tunnels to prevent assaults. More than 60,000 people were on Rio’s subway when lights went out.”
This blackout affected large parts of Brazil and practically the entire country of Paraguay. Passengers on metro trains were stranded and there were numerous car accidents due to the lack of street lighting.
Buses had a difficult time handling the extra passengers and many people were left with no way to get home. Even though the blackout only lasted a few hours, approximately 87 million people were affected. Storms were responsible for the outage.
Northeast U.S. & Canada Blackout, 2003; Italy Blackout, 2012
The Northeast U.S. & Canada blackout of 2003 and the Italy blackout of 2003 were incidentally approximately the same size, in terms of people directly affected. Each resulted in about 55 million people losing power.
In the North American blackout, many residents did not get their power turned on for a couple of days. Approximately 45 million Americans and 10 million Canadians were affected by the blackout, which was reportedly started by lighting striking a power plant in northern New York.
The Italy blackout was caused by a power line between Switzerland and Italy going out for a few hours. 110 trains were shut down and 30,000 people were stranded on them. All Italy flights were cancelled. “The night of 27 September 2003 is the night of the annual overnight Nuit Blanche in Rome, the capital of Italy. Thus, many people were on the streets and all public transportation were still operating at the time of the blackout (at about 03:00 on 28 September 2003) despite the fact that it was very late at night. The blackout caused the carnival to end early. Several hundred people were trapped in underground trains. Coupled with heavy rain at the time, many people spent the night sleeping in train stations and on streets in Rome.” Luckily, there were reportedly no serious accidents! The only non-Italian area that was affected was part of part of the Geneva Canton of Switzerland, and just for a few hours.
Northeast U.S. Blackout, November 1965
A blackout that led the record books for years, the Northeast U.S. blackout of 1965 left about 30 million people without power for up to 12 hours. The cause of this one? Human error. “Maintenance personnel incorrectly set a protective relay on one of the transmission lines between the Niagaragenerating station Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2 in Queenston, Ontario. The safety relay, which was to trip if the current exceeded the capacity of the transmission line, was set too low…. New York City was dark by 5:27 p.m. The blackout was not universal in the city. Some neighborhoods never lost power. Also, some areas in New York City suburban area Bergen County, New Jersey, served by PSE&G, did not lose power. Most of the television stations in the New York metro area went dead, as well as about half the FM stations.” The good news in this story was that it occurred during a full moon, which provided highly needed light, if not as much as would be ideal for most of the city-dwellers.
2012 U.S. Blackouts
Some other notable blackouts that did not directly affect as many people as those above but which had a strong impact on key economic areas of the U.S. include two from just the past year:
East Coast United States, July 2012
This was the largest non-hurricane blackout in history for the United States. Caused by several violent storms, four states and the District of Columbia were affected. Call centres were out of commission for emergencies and petrol (gas) stations were closed down.
The government requested that people conserve water due to sewage plants being out of operation. To make things even worse, many people had to suffer through a heatwave that followed the storms with no air conditioning. [Editor's note: one of our writers was in that boat! Not fun.]
East United States, October 2012
The East Coast of the United States got hit with a second outage, this time in New York and other areas that were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Millions were without power for days; over 250,000 homes were affected in New York City alone. For the entire state, over one million were without power, while 14 states had some outage of power from the storm.
The state least affected was North Carolina, with 6,600 homes without power. Some homes were still without power two weeks after the storm, right when a large snowstorm hit the area, further complicating clean-up operations.
Blackouts can last from a few hours to over a week, depending on the cause and the infrastructure of the nation in question. Regardless of how long they last, the resulting damage can be widespread and severe. For more information on how to cope with a blackout by using emergency power, visit Mather and Stuart.