Power Grid Failures and Their Causes

Color daytime photo of large power grid electrical system components of the power plant to produce electricity.

Power grid failures have become a prevalent concern for Americans, disrupting daily routines and leading to substantial financial losses. These outages damage electronics, halt business operations, and result in extensive food spoilage. But what are the primary causes behind these frequent disruptions?

Power grid failures and their causes primarily stem from extreme weather-related events, accounting for 70% of U.S. outages. Electrical system, human susceptibility, and the growing reliance on computer-supported systems amplifies vulnerabilities, not only to terrorist and cyber-attacks, but extreme natural events like solar storms also pose major threats. 

The rest of this article delves into the historical power outages that have impacted the United States, shedding light on their causes and consequences. From the Northeast’s blackouts in 1965 and 2003 to Texas’s 2021 grid failure, join us as we unravel the lessons learned and underscore the importance of emergency preparedness for every American. 

Major Power Grid Failures in North American History and Their Causes 

Black and white picture of the front page of the New York Daily News after the 1977 blackout.
The front page of the New York Daily News after the 1977 blackout.

Recommended Reading: What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down? and Potential Outcomes if the American Power Grid Goes Down.

1. August 14 and 15, 2003 Northeastern U.S. and Southern Canada Power Blackout

Color photo of a white mother, father, and daughter reading in the dark by candelight in their living room in a power outage.
A mother, father, and daughter reading in the dark by candelight in their living room in a power outage.

50 million people lost power on August 14 and 15, 2003 in northeastern U.S. and southern Canada suffered the worst power blackout in history. 100 power plants and 22 nuclear reactors were shut down.

Remarkably, the Northeast appears in America’s power outage history twice, with its second significant blackout occurring in 2003. Impacting a staggering 50 million people across more than eight states and Canada. A software bug affected the systems at FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse nuclear power. This system malfunction failed to detect an overload until it encountered untrimmed trees in Ohio.

Typically, built-in system alarms would alert maintenance personnel in real time, allowing them to rectify potential issues before they escalate. However, the software bug disabled these alarms. What began as a minor glitch ballooned into a major grid problem. 

In response to this electrical software disruption, policy changes were instituted, emphasizing enhanced infrastructure protection. 

2. The 1965 Northeast Power Failure 

Black and white photo showing the 1965 Northeast blackout showing New York’s 42nd Street with no electricity and only car headlights on Nov. 9, 1965.
The 1965 Northeast blackout showing New York’s 42nd Street with no electricity and only car headlights on Nov. 9, 1965.

The U.S. has experienced many power outages, but the Northeast Blackout on November 9, 1965, in the Northeast stands out as one of the most significant. On that day, 30 million people across regions, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont, found themselves without power for 13 hours.

What makes the Northeast Blackout power grid outage particularly notable is its cause: human error in response to the extreme weather. Cold weather, energy demand for heat, lighting, and all demands forced the regions power grids electrical backup systems to fail.

Electrical engineers who continuously monitor the power grid for potential over-voltage dangers, had installed a protective relay on a transmission line near the Niagara generation station days before the blackout.

This relay was intended to monitor power flow, tripping the circuit breaker at any sign of irregularity. However, on the day of the outage, a maintenance worker had improperly set the relay, preventing it from functioning as intended.

Compounding the issue on the Northeast Blackout, November 9, 1965, saw a significant temperature drop, leading many to turn their heaters on full blast. The resulting spike in demand created a chain reaction. An initial power surge in Lewiston, New York, triggered the poorly set relay, deactivating a primary power line serving Northern Ontario.

Subsequent events escalated rapidly. Power originally flowing through the disabled line was redirected to other main lines. This sudden influx of energy overloaded these lines, causing them to trip their protective relays. As the power sought alternative routes, it surged towards New York, leading to an overwhelming load. Though this series of events may seem prolonged, they transpired in a mere five minutes.

The cascading effect resulted in vast blackouts in areas dependent on the affected lines, with some cities in darkness for 13 hours. This incident led to the creation of the Electric Power Research Institute to develop new systems to enhance the monitoring of power flow across major transmission lines.  

3. The 1977 Power Blackout in New York City

The July 13, 1977 Power Blackout in New York City was caused by a lightning strikes in conjunction with one of the longest heat waves in the city’s history with temperatures topping 100 degrees. 8 million people were affected and 3,700 people were arrested form looting and rioting.

Initial findings indicated that a lightning strike hit a power substation near the Hudson River, which in turn tripped two circuit breakers.

While the initial lightning strike caused minimal disruption, nature had more in store. Within an hour, two subsequent lightning strikes occurred, the cumulative effect of which was devastating. The largest power generator in New York City failed, plunging the metropolis into complete darkness.

The aftermath of the blackout resembled scenes from a dramatic television series. Riots erupted across New York City, with many individuals engaging in widespread looting. Crown Heights bore the brunt of the chaos, with 75 stores being looted within a mere 5-block radius. Furthermore, arsonists, utilizing the enveloping darkness, set multiple properties ablaze in the Bushwick area.

The severity of the damage was directly proportional to the duration of the blackout. Power was restored only after a staggering 25 hours. By then, rioters had pillaged approximately 1,600 stores, and over 1,000 fires were ignited by arsonists. 

Recommended Reading: How Vulnerable Is the U.S. Power Grid? and Power Grid’s Constrained Capacity May Slow EV Adoption

4. The 2012 Power Outages

Nature also decided to strike again with severe weather and leave a trail of devastation in 2012 in the form of Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane caused massive flooding accompanied by strong winds and effected large parts of the East coast.

The Hurricane Sandy also affected power supply lines on the East Coast, causing power outages that affected more than 8.5 million people. The effects of Hurricane Sandy traversed 21 states, with some states going for weeks without power. 

5. March 1989 Quebec Geomagnetic Storm Power Grid Failure

Color photo showing the incredible March 1989 Quebec Geomagnetic Storm caused power grid transformerlow voltage winding thermal damage.
Color photo showing the incredible March 1989 Quebec Geomagnetic Storm caused power grid transformer low voltage winding thermal damage.

Quebec Canada, on March 13, 1989, experienced a huge power blackout caused by an extremely powerful geomagnetic storm that caused a major power grid blackout in Canada that left 6 million people without electricity for 9 hours.

This severe geomagnetic storm caused outage on the Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission power grid. Seven static compensators were severly damaged and immediate and long term damage to transformers from the geomagnetic storm and secondary effects from transformer saturation,

Soalr storms not only affected Quebec in 1989 but have caused much damage and power outages around the world over the last century.

6. The Texas Power Grid Failure in 2021

Another recent large power grid failure in the United States transpired in Texas in 2021, attributed primarily to extreme weather. At one point 5 million people wer without power and 11 million lost power overall at different times over 3 days. Texas boasts its own independent power grid, eliminating reliance on other states for electricity.

However, the state’s self-reliance was called into question in 2021 when Texas grappled with an intense winter storm. Faced with plummeting temperatures, Texans turned up their heaters en masse. 

The resultant energy demand surpassed the Texas power grid’s generation capacity. To counteract this unprecedented demand, grid operators initiated rolling blackouts, disconnecting entire neighborhoods to alleviate stress on the system.

During winter, Texas power plants have a peak capacity of 67,000 megawatts, which pales in comparison to their summer maximum of 86,000 megawatts, as reported by AP News. Compounding the crisis, the 2021 winter storm froze natural gas supply lines and halted wind turbines, taking 46,000 megawatts offline during a time of heightened demand. 

Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, underscored that all power sources underperformed due to inadequate preparation for drastic weather shifts.

Despite the U.S. undergoing seasonal changes, its gas-fired power plants and wind turbines are designed to withstand winter’s harsh conditions. Texas’s lack of preparedness for such weather shifts was evident, especially recalling a similar incident in 2011 when extreme cold induced multiple power shutdowns and blackouts.

In response, a winterization program was introduced for operators. Regrettably, it wasn’t made mandatory, and it proposed equipment and measures that many operators were reluctant to adopt. 

Recommended Reading: Should You Be Worried About Weather-Caused Power Grid Outages? and Why The U.S. Power Grid Isn’t Ready For Electric Cars.

7. The 2011 Blackout in Southwest 

In 2011, the extreme weather and under capacity caused a significant power grid failure that resulted in extensive blackouts throughout California, marking it as the worst in the state’s history. This Arizona-California blackout report shows the weaknesses that are linked to a combination of natural events and potential human errors. Towards summer’s end, California faced severe heatwaves, disrupting planned power outages.

These disruptions subsequently delayed essential maintenance programs. With the scheduled maintenance left incomplete, the grid became susceptible to human error. A technician inadvertently activated a major power equipment, leading to an outage lasting nearly 12 hours and impacting approximately 2.7 million Americans.

Businesses, particularly restaurants and grocery stores, bore the brunt of the blackout, as they discarded spoiled food due to non-functional refrigeration systems. Furthermore, the power failure severely compromised sewage pumping stations, presenting waste and water hazards in various city regions. In response, five diesel generators were installed in these pumping stations. 

Critical Lessons from the Vulnerabilities of the North American Power Grid

Color night time photo of two small candles burning in a tray sitting on top of a power blackout emergency checklist.
Two small candles burning in a tray sitting on top of a power blackout emergency checklist.

The North American power grid has shown certain weak spots over the years, leading to numerous blackouts that have plunged many Americans into darkness. Through a historical lens, we understand that while some power failures can have localized, minimal impact, others can ripple across various grids, resulting in extensive outages. 

Deciphering the root causes behind such cascading failures is challenging, given the dynamic conditions of American power grids, especially during demand surges, seasonal changes, and peak periods.

Several key lessons emerge from these observations:

  1. Understanding Cascading Failures: The varied conditions of American power grids, particularly during demand surges, seasonal changes, and peak periods, can lead to cascading failures, causing widespread outages.
  2. Anticipating Climate Change Impacts: Grid operators nationally face questions regarding the potential effects of climate change on power infrastructure. Predictions suggest more intense heatwaves, floods, and other natural calamities, which have historically caused extensive blackouts.
  3. Future Power Demands: Forecasts indicate significant future power requirements, with a recent study estimating the Southeast alone could demand 35% more electricity by 2050.
  4. Urgent Need for Resilience: In light of these vulnerabilities, there’s an escalating urgency to bolster the country’s power grid resilience promptly. 

Key Takeaways

The history of power outages in the U.S., from Texas to the Northeast, underscores the vulnerability of our nation’s power grid to both natural phenomena and human errors. These failures emphasize the unpredictable nature of blackouts and the cascading consequences they can initiate. 

For the average American, this serves as a compelling reminder of the importance of emergency preparedness. It’s crucial to proactively equip homes with essentials and stay informed, ensuring safety and resilience in the face of potential grid disruptions.


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John Mortensen

As a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, geologist, or scientist. I became a project manager which is involved with many of those things. I am a project manager and tech writer who researches the latest alternative and green technologies. We write helpful articles about green electronics and green technology products. AI, extreme weather, electric vehicles, are all in our future and we want to know the best way to deal with the effects of these on the power grid and emergency preparedness. https://techevaluate.com/author-bio-page-john-w-mortensen/

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