The Blackout of 2003

The initiating events appear to have happened under the lazy eyes of a mismanaged utility, but underlying conditions made a massive U.S. power failure almost inevitable

10 min read

With additional reporting on sidebars by Willie D. Jones, Elizabeth A. Bretz, and Chris Lang

21 August 2003--What was by most measures the biggest electricity outage in history, surpassing the blackouts in the western United States in the summer of 1996, swept northeastern and Great Lakes states and the Canadian province of Ontario late Thursday afternoon, 14 August. Long before power had been restored to businesses and residences from New York City to Cleveland, Detroit, and Toronto, politicians and commentators on both sides of the border were pointing fingers. But, in fact, major difficulties in the electric power system had been predicted by three U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) studies going back to 1998, and had been duly reported in the press (including IEEE Spectrum), with plenty of blame for inaction to go all around.

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How to Prevent Blackouts by Packetizing the Power Grid

The rules of the Internet can also balance electricity supply and demand

13 min read
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How to Prevent Blackouts by Packetizing the Power Grid
Dan Page
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Bad things happen when demand outstrips supply. We learned that lesson too well at the start of the pandemic, when demand for toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, masks, and ventilators outstripped the available supply. Today, chip shortages continue to disrupt the consumer electronics, automobile, and other sectors. Clearly, balancing the supply and demand of goods is critical for a stable, normal, functional society.

That need for balance is true of electric power grids, too. We got a heartrending reminder of this fact in February 2021, when Texas experienced an unprecedented and deadly winter freeze. Spiking demand for electric heat collided with supply problems created by frozen natural-gas equipment and below-average wind-power production. The resulting imbalance left more than 2 million households without power for days, caused at least 210 deaths, and led to economic losses of up to US $130 billion.

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