10 Years After the Great Blackout, the Grid Is Stronger — but Vulnerable to Extreme Weather

More than 50 million people throughout the Northeast lost power in the great blackout of 2003. Could it happen again to the grid?

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Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City was hit by a blackout in 2003. Could it happen again?

It wasn’t the tree’s fault — or least, not just the tree’s fault. Nearly 10 years ago, on Aug. 14, 2003, the electricity grid in the U.S. Northeast was stressed close to the limit. This wasn’t unusual; summer is a period of high demand in the Northeast, as air conditioners run overtime to compensate for the heat, and a number of older power plants were already offline for maintenance. As power lines became overloaded, they began sagging because of the high temperatures, until one line south of Cleveland touched an overgrown tree limb and short-circuited. What followed was a cascade of disaster due to a mix of human error and equipment failure, until by 4:10 p.m. E.T. that day more than 50 million people had lost power in parts of Ontario and eight U.S. states. New York City looked like this, and power wasn’t fully restored for two days. At the time it was the second most widespread power blackout in history, after a 1999 disaster in Brazil.

Today the blackout is remembered almost nostalgically, especially in New York. Jittery residents were relieved first to find out that they weren’t victims of a massive terrorist attack (9/11 had happened less than two years before) and then to discover that the power loss wasn’t going to lead to wide-scale looting and crime, as happened during the blackout of 1977. (See this great NPR piece about how the 2003 blackout practically became a civic holiday in New York.) But the blackout was a big deal, leading to at least 11 deaths and costing the economy some $10 billion. More important, the disaster underscored just how rickety our interconnected and jury-rigged electrical grid was — and how vulnerable it could be to disruption, both accidental and malevolent.

So 10 years later, could the lights still go out?

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Yes — but on the whole, the electrical grid is tougher and smarter. As Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes in a blog post, the No. 1 lesson from the blackout was simple: make grid-reliability rules mandatory, not just voluntary, as was the case before. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) now has the ability to impose fines of up to $1 million per violation per day for failure to comply with those standards. Beyond that, though, utilities invested real money to make the grid more resilient. In an analysis conducted for the Associated Press, the software and data service firm Ventyx found that utilities spent an average of $21,514 per year on devices and station equipment per mile of transmission line from 2003 to 2012 — nearly three times what they spent from 1994 to 2003. Maintenance spending for overhead lines increased by an average of 8.2% per year from 2003 to 2012, compared with just 3% a year on average from 1994 to 2003. Thanks in part to $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money allocated toward the construction of a smart grid, utilities have been able to add hundreds of advanced grid sensors and millions of smart electrical meters, which help power companies keep near real-time tabs on the state of the grid. And it doesn’t hurt that power demand has remained flat or fallen over the past decade, as devices and appliances became more efficient and economic growth slowed down.

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When it comes to performance, the grid’s actually doing quite well. PA Consulting Group notes that U.S. customers only lose power 1.2 times per year, for a total of 112 minutes, not counting disruptions from weather (more on that later). FERC notes that high-voltage transmission lines have been available for normal use 99.6% of the time over the past three years, not including planned outages. Major transmission lines caused power losses only twice in 2012, after averaging nine times a year from 2008 to 2011. Compared with just about anything else offered by business or the government — 911 response times, air travel, voting lines — the grid has been something Americans can count on. And in a world where nearly 2.5 billion people have either no access to electricity or only intermittent access — including well-off citizens of fast-growing countries like India — that’s not a small thing, especially as reliable electricity becomes ever more vital to our connected lives.

But that doesn’t mean the grid is invulnerable. As David Crane of NRG Energy wrote in a blog post yesterday, “The American power industry deploys technology designed in the 1800s to manage a system of wires and wooden poles that is ill suited to the weather challenges of the 21st century.” A new White House report notes that an aging grid (the average power plant is 30 years old, and 70% of the grid’s transmission lines and transformers are at least 25 years old) will be increasingly stressed by extreme weather. We saw that after last year’s Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out power for millions of people, many of them for weeks, as utilities struggled to repair downed power lines and flooded equipment. In its report, the White House estimates that weather-related power outages have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion over the past decade. That can rise to $40 billion to $75 billion in years with extreme storms — like last year’s. With climate change likely making storms stronger and potentially more frequent — even as we crowd into coastal areas and become more dependent on constant electricity — the vulnerability of the grid will only increase.

The White House report recommends strengthening parts of the grid against extreme weather — transformers, for example, shouldn’t be close to sea level. But it may be impossible to make the grid totally weatherproof. Burying overhead utility wires can cost between $500,000 to $2 million per mile, and those underground wires may end up even more vulnerable to storm-surge flooding close to the coast. The reality is that it’s often cheaper to replace distributed transmission and distribution assets after they’ve been knocked over than it is to harden them against weather. But building more transmission wires and energy-storage units would help in the event of another major storm.

The best bet would be a more distributed grid, with more local generation — chiefly via solar panels — and local storage. Unsurprisingly, diesel-powered generators proved popular in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and solar panels helped as well. Of course, generators are dependent on fuel, and the widespread power outages after Sandy also shut down the Northeast’s fuel-distribution network too. But better batteries in the future could offer utilities, business and residences the chance to store electricity for a (very) rainy day, while cheaper solar will give individuals more independence and create a grid that’s more resilient in the event of a prolonged disruption. As David Crane told me in an interview this past May, there’s a future out there where “our homes will not have to be tethered to aboveground electrical poles.” It’s also one where blackouts — the fun kind and the decidedly less so — would be a thing of the past.

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