In 2003, a blackout crippled areas of the U.S. and Canada, leaving some 50 million people in the dark. More than thirteen years later, we are still grappling with concerns over the vulnerability of the power grid.

Grid stability is the main sales pitch used by many corporate utility companies to persuade an increasing customer base to sign up with them. Interestingly enough, this is the same pitch they use to justify why they increase prices year after year.

Their very enticing ad campaigns state that they have the latest technology, solid transformer systems, well-trained repair crews on standby and can work with other utilities if necessary to ensure your power stays on even in the windiest and snowy conditions. They keep reminding customers not to rely on solar power, backup storage technology or even generators; that all is well taken care of and included in the cost.

The Blackouts
Well, some us might remember the Northeast blackout of 1965 that caused a significant disruption in the supply of electricity. This blackout affected parts of Ontario in Canada and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Vermont in the United States. It left over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) without electricity for up to 13 hours.

Well some might say we have come a long way since that happened. Well, no!

On August 14, 2003, just shortly after 2 P.M. Eastern Time, occurred what is today known as the Northeast blackout of 2003. This blackout—biggest in North American history—affected parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Scientific American reported that this widespread power outage was caused when a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down—a fault, as it’s known in the power industry.

That the line had softened under the heat of the high current coursing through it. Normally, the problem would have tripped an alarm in the control room of FirstEnergy Corporation, an Ohio-based utility company, but the alarm system failed.

The power outage left over 50 million people without power for up to two days and contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion.

What caused the blackouts?
Similar incidents like those mentioned above have occurred and continue to occur all over the world, so it’s safe to say that the issue is not unique to North America. It’s true that the chances of these massive widespread power outages are rare and would depend on a highly unlikely combination of extended cold weather and unplanned disruptions to power delivered into the grid. It is also the case that consumers in most of the world’s developed economies have become so used to a steady delivery of electricity to homes, offices and factories that any minor interruptions risk creating an uproar.

“The blackout really tested the system,” Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, who was mayor of Ottawa at the time told the Globe and Mail. “Ontario’s aging electrical system was “very, very weak.”

He went on to add that the province had a deficit of imported electricity and had lost generation due to lack of investment. An issue that had resulted in leaks within the transmission system which lead to a reduction in transmission capacity.

To think that what caused the 2003 blackout varied from equipment failure, inadequate investment and vegetation management, hurricanes, cyber-attacks and even coronal mass ejections from the sun begs the question how these mega-utility companies handle operations and maintenance. It also makes us ask how they handle forecasts and their preparedness for future issues with the grid.

Are we still at risk for another massive blackout?
The North American power grid has come a long way since these two massive blackouts, but experts say the system is still vulnerable to human error and extreme weather. Utility companies involved in the 2003 power outage—such as FirstEnergy Corp., the Ohio-based company mentioned above that was at the heart of the power outage—have since made efforts to rectify or improve their preparedness and management with regards to a re-occurrence.

But the fact remains that the issue has shifted from natural events and maintenance to a much more intentional problem: cyber threats.

An article published in February 2015 from an examination by USA Today found amongst other things that the physical and computerized security mechanisms intended to protect against widespread power outages are affected by attacks—more often than once a week. They also added that transformers and other critical equipment important in grid transmission often sit in plain view, protected only by chain-link fencing and a few security cameras.

Reports from Ontario’s energy watchdog indicate that the grid’s susceptibility to cyber threats grew in the years following the 2003 blackout.

Although local outages caused by falling trees knocking down distribution lines are common, large-scale failures within the core transmission lines rarely occur on a modern electric grid. Before 2003, the last major blackout in the United States had been on the west coast in 1996, and more recently an outage has struck in the San Diego area.

These blackouts were caused by issues that could have been avoided, especially the 2003 blackout which stemmed from a combination of bad vegetation management and a series of monitoring and communications breakdowns. Vegetation requirements have since been standardized, and a new generation of sensors is providing grid operators with more information about what is happening across the grid at any given moment.

Derick Lila
Derick is a Clark University graduate—and Fulbright alumni with a Master's Degree in Environmental Science, and Policy. He has over a decade of solar industry research, marketing, and content strategy experience.

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