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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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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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