Walking Back The Largest U.S. Power Blackout, 10 Years Later

On a hot, summer afternoon in 2003, a set of sagging power lines outside of Cleveland sank into some overgrown trees, tripping circuit breakers, and leading to a massive power outage across the Northeastern U.S. It's estimated that this outage affected an estimated 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Traffic lights stopped working, cell phones were knocked out, and the Manhattan skyline went dark.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Ten years ago tomorrow, a sagging electrical line outside of Cleveland touched some overgrown tree limbs. That seemingly minor event triggered a chain reaction and a massive power outage. The blackout affected some 50 million people in eight states and Canada. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports on the biggest power blackout in U.S. history and some of the changes that it prompted.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: In a suburban park southeast of Cleveland, a huge electrical transmission tower rises from a well-manicured clearing. Frank Merat is struck by the neatly trimmed path that's been clear-cut through the woods for a row of these huge steel structures that recede into the distance.

FRANK MERAT: Look at that. Looks just like a canal or something through the woods.

BARNETT: Merat says that canal was cut so that no stray tree limb can touch a sagging power line. Merat teaches electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and knows a lot about the hundreds of thousands of volts that course through these wires.

MERAT: You can see the sag right there. The more power going through, basically, the wire softens and it'll come down.

BARNETT: In mid-afternoon, on August 14th, 2003, a wire along this corridor started sagging with the heat of high electrical demand on a hot summer's day, touching a tree, shorting the line and shutting it down. Sensing a break in the electrical grid, the current automatically rerouted to an adjacent line, which began to overheat and sink into another tree, which then blew another circuit.

In just six minutes it produced a full-blown power surge, shutting down lines from Ohio to the East Coast and up into Canada.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good evening. From our NBC News headquarters in midtown Manhattan, where we are in the midst of what appears to be a colossal and history-making blackout.

BARNETT: For some, power was restored within hours. Others were without electricity for days. The scope of the blackout was staggering. Cost estimates for the U.S. ranged as high as $10 billion. Federal investigators eventually traced the initial cause to lines owned by Akron-based First Energy. Months later, a follow-up investigation targeted a faulty monitoring system that failed to alert operators to the impending catastrophe.

Now, 10 years later, that power company is about to unveil what it says is a solution to that communications problem.

MARK DURBIN: This is our new Akron transmission control center and what we're doing here is ultimately we'll control the transmission grid that First Energy is responsible for.

BARNETT: First Energy's Mark Durbin is showing the construction site of a $45 million facility designed to constantly monitor the company's electrical grid, which stretches across five states. Another critical finding in the investigation was that First Energy might have avoided the cascading outages by cutting power to some of its customers.

Durbin says that may be true but hindsight's 20/20.

DURBIN: It was just not something you want to do. And looking back on it, maybe that would've helped.

BARNETT: Yet another finding was a lack of communication between First Energy and a regional power transmission traffic cop known as the Mid Continent Independent System Operator, or MISO. MISO is supposed to coordinate the activities of a number of Midwest power companies but regional operations director David Zwergel says the blackout overwhelmed its capabilities.

DAVID ZWERGEL: We were a relatively new organization and we had limited visibility of what was going on in the grid. We had limited involvement at the time and ability to monitor.

BARNETT: But he says that's changed and MISO has more staff and additional monitoring technology. First Energy's Mark Durbin says many of these changes, including better training and certification, even tree trimming protocols, are a direct result of increased scrutiny from Washington in the wake of the blackout.

DURBIN: There weren't any federal programs in place, as far as it being mandatory and enforceable. That wasn't the case 10 years ago. Now it is.

BARNETT: The Department of Energy's Patricia Hoffman concedes that even with all the new safeguards installed over the past decade, there's no guarantee they can prevent another blackout. She says more needs to be done to better manage a growing national demand for electricity.

PATRICK HOFFMAN: As weather continues to get hotter, you're going to see increased demands, and we're going to have to find a way to bring that peak load down.

BARNETT: For instance, Hoffman says some utilities offer rebates to customers willing to cut back on electrical usage during peak demand periods, in an effort to keep the grid stable and keep those power lines from sagging. Back at the transmission towers, a red-tailed hawk glides onto a crossbeam of one of the immense structures.

The bird surveys the landscape, oblivious to the 345,000 volts of power coursing above its head. The air is cool right now, but summer's not over yet. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

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