50 million people in Ontario and the north-eastern United States were shocked on Thursday August 14 when they simultaneously lost their power at 4:15 p.m. ET. Later on that night at 11 p.m. ET Premier Ernie Eves declared a state of emergency for Ontario (CBC – State of Emergency). While most people remained calm and tried to make the best out of a bad situation, others were the victims of crime and misfortune. The Toronto Police reported receiving more than double the usual calls for a weeknight, making 38 major arrests and investigating 114 criminal occurrences. In Gloucester Ontario a 15 year-old boy died in a fire started by a candle and in Ottawa a pedestrian was hit by a car (Friscolanti).
Officials from Canada and the United States immediately started blaming each other for the blackout. At first Ottawa speculated that lightning striking a power plant on the American side of the Niagara Region was the cause of the blackout. The Ontario government later stated that it was a fire instead of lightning and then said it was in Pennsylvania instead of Niagara. The U.S. was blamed once again when Defence Minister John McCallum said that a U.S. section of a shared power grid was the source of the problem. On the U.S. side New York State officials blamed the blackout on Canada. The actual cause of the blackout was traced back to three failed transmission lines in northern Ohio, but experts still do not know how the situation escalated beyond those three lines. Michehl Gent, head of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) stated, “the system has been designed and rules have been created to prevent this escalation and cascading. It should have stopped, we think, after the first three line failures” (CBC, August 16).
As of Saturday, August 16 most of the power had returned to Ontario and the United States. Eves estimated that Ontario would not have the power fully restored until the middle of next week. Until that time the cities of Ontario will be experiencing rolling blackouts – the power will be rotated through neighbourhoods so that everyone gets a fair share of power (Friscolanti).
How did it happen
According to CNN (August 16) “electricity generation stations throughout the United States are interconnected in a system called power grids.” If a problem occurs in one grid it can cause a blackout in that grid and also can cause a ripple effect that will shut down all of the adjoining grids one after another (CNN, August 16). Ontario and the affected U.S. regions have interconnected grids. Fortunately, Quebec has its own independent system that is only connected to the U.S. to supply them with power and it is protected against the kind of ripple effect described above. This is why they did not lose power in the blackout. Quebec is also sending power to the U.S. and Ontario in an effort to help them get back online (Travers).
Experts stated that the blackout was inevitable. “Critics insist the creaking energy infrastructure that serves the United States and Canada – built on 1950s technology – has been all but overwhelmed by huge increases in the power volume flowing through the grid” (Friscolanti). Bill Richardson, the former energy secretary and present governor of New Mexico said, “We’re a superpower with a Third World grid”.
The power is being brought back up slowly in order to avoid a “sudden, overwhelming demand” that could cause another blackout. When the system is brought back up and electrical devices are all started up again at the same time it can put an excessive demand on the system. The power is being restored in stages to minimize the strain on the grid (CNN, August 16).
The current Blackout affecting 50 million people is the largest blackout in North American history. The other power outages worth comparing occurred in 1965, 1977 and 1998. In 1965, 30 million people in Canada and the north-eastern U.S. were left without power for over 13 hours. The 1977 blackout affected most of New York and its suburbs (CBC, August 14). More recently in 1998 an ice storm wiped out the power from eastern Ontario to Southern Quebec. I was present in Ontario in the current blackout and in the ice storm. I was lucky in this blackout to have my power returned at 2:00 p.m. ET on the 14th, although, it would not have been too hard to deal with a longer period since I already endured 8 days without power in freezing temperatures in the ice storm.
What’s Being Done
Although the cause of the blackout has been determined there are still unanswered questions. The NERC is trying to determine why three failed power lines led to the largest blackout in North American History and Canada and the United States have agreed to form a joint task force to investigate the incident. The task force will also be investigating methods of preventing more problems from occurring in the future. Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George Bush made the decision in a 10-minute telephone conversation (CNN, August 15) Hopefully these investigations will lead to a stronger North American power system and more policies for dealing with major blackouts. As for the general population, most people have now learned how dependant we are on electricity; whether this is technological improvement or unnecessary dependence is a matter of opinion.
CBC. (2003, August 14). Blackouts hit in 1965, 1977. cbc.ca. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/poweroutage/blackout.html
CBC – Blackout Blame. (2003, August 15). Canada, U.S. exchange blame for outage. cbc.ca. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/08/15/blackout_blame030815
CBC – State of Emergency. (2003, August 15). Eves declares state of emergency. cbc.ca. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://cbc.ca/stories/2003/08/14/stateofemerg030814
CBC. (2003, August 16). Power outage likely started in Ohio: U.S. officials. cbc.ca. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://cbc.ca/stories/2003/08/16/outage_ohio030816
CNN. (2003, August 15). Canada, U.S. form blackout task force. cnn.com. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/08/15/canada.blackout.ap/index.html
CNN. (2003, August 16). How power grids work. cnn.com. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/14/power.grid.ap/index.html
Friscolanti, M. (2003, August 16). We are not back to normal, Eves warns. National Post. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.canada.com/national/features/blackout/story.html?id=C45D1804-E785-49EE-8A49-A8481B011666
Travers, E. (2003, August 16). Separate power grid insulates Quebec. The Gazette. Retrieved August 16, 2003, from http://www.canada.com/national/features/blackout/story/html