The 2003 Northeast Blackout And The Harsh Lessons Of Grid Failures

The grid failure in 2003 which reverted much of the eastern US and Canada back to a pre-electrification era may be rather memorable, yet it was not the first time that a national, or even international power grid failed. Nor is it likely that it will be the last. In August of 2023 we mark the 20th anniversary of this blackout which left many people without electricity for up to three days, while costing dozens of  people their lives. This raises the question of what lessons we learned from this event since then.

Although damage to transmission lines and related infrastructure is a big cause of power outages – especially in countries where overhead wiring is the norm – the most serious blackouts involve the large-scale desynchronization of the grid, to the point where generators shutdown to protect themselves. Bringing the grid back from such a complete blackout can take hours to days, as sections of the grid are reconnected after a cascade scenario as seen with the 2003 blackout, or the rather similar 1965 blackout which affected nearly the same region.

With how much more modern society relies today on constant access to electrical power than it did twenty, let alone fifty-eight years ago, exactly how afraid should we be of another, possibly worse blackout?

Anatomy Of A Blackout

 Crossed wires shorting out, Troy, Illinois. After a few minutes of sporadic arcing, the transformer down the street burned out. (Credit: Robert Lawton)
Crossed wires shorting out, Troy, Illinois. After a few minutes of sporadic arcing, the transformer down the street burned out. (Credit: Robert Lawton)

In the most simple terms, a grid blackout (‘power outage’) occurs when one or more grid parameters venture outside of safe operating limits, causing protections to engage. Here it’s also important to distinguish between a localized blackout and a cascade event, as was the case in 2003. In the former case something like overhead wiring may short due to a falling tree, causing fuses to trip and disabling that part of the grid until repairs can be made. This is similar to how a fusebox in a house will trip, whether due to a short or overload situation.

To go from this type of annoyance to a full-blown blackout with cascade failure, these protections have to fail for some reason, which will allow voltage and load swings to propagate across the network, causing more and more transmission lines and generators to either trip into safety mode or fail catastrophically. In the case of the 1965 northeast blackout, the start of the cascade was an issue with a protective relay on a transmission line at the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Station No. 2 in Queenston, Ontario.

Due to this relay having been programmed incorrectly, it tripped when the external load increased, which led to the transmission line to Ontario being cut. The surge of power overloaded successive other transmission lines, each of which tripped and worsened the cascade failure. Along with a number of power stations, the North-Eastern grid effectively broke into a number of islands, with only some being powered due to safeties kicking in on time. Despite the 1960s US not being as reliant on electrical power as today, it did have a significant impact on the populace.

A number of more limited blackouts occurred in the New York City region since then, with the 1977 NYC blackout being highly notable. This blackout started with a lightning strike on a substation that tripped two circuit breakers, with equipment issues preventing the transmission line to recover and resulting in additional transmission lines to trip. The 2019 Manhattan blackout was very similar, but remained limited to an even smaller area after an explosion took out a substation.

Staying In Sync

After previous larger and smaller blackouts, one might get the impression that the North-American grid was getting more and more reliable, with any issues quickly being localized and prevented from spreading. This was what made the 2003 blackout such a memorable event, as not only was it on-par with the 1965 blackout, it happened in an era where reliance on continuous electrical power had become a fact of life. The final report by the joint Canadian-US task force that was set up afterwards provides a detailed overview of the chain of events, starting in chapter 3.

As noted in the report, the causes behind the cascade failure did not appear out of nowhere, but were the result of long-term institutional failures and weaknesses, including poor preparation and planning, issues with the monitoring tools, as well as internal communication issues at FirstEnergy, the Ohio-based company which caught most of the flak during the investigation. These deficiencies led to the rather mundane events of overhead 345 kV transmission lines shorting out on foliage and a power plant dropping off the grid not being adjusted for in time, causing the cascade effect that shutdown much of the North-Eastern grid, while leaving some parts of the grid operating but isolated, reflecting the situation of 1965.

Some regions, such as in Canada around the Bruce nuclear power station, did suffer a blackout, but the station was able to disconnect from the grid and use its steam bypass circuit to keep the reactors running at 60% power before attempting to reconnect to the grid about five hours later. Such safeties allowed some areas to recover faster than others.

Grid frequency in the affected region on August 14, 2003, up to 16:09 EDT (Source: US-Canada Power System Outage Task Force)
Grid frequency in the affected region on August 14, 2003, up to 16:09 EDT (Source: US-Canada Power System Outage Task Force)

Major issues in the planning before the cascade failure included a lack of spare reactive capacity, which was crucial at the time due to a lot of reactive demand from compressor-based airconditioning units in the late Summer heat. The need to balance reactive power rather than just real power (a property associated with resistive loads which have a power factor of 1.0) is a major concern in grid health, especially since reactive power is also consumed within transmission lines, making more remote generators less useful than ones near the load.

As more transmission lines failed, available reactive power dropped, along with the grid’s voltage. Interestingly, the grid frequency remained relatively stable in the period leading up to the blackout, with the cascade failure of multiple sets of transmission lines leading to overload situations that tripped the protective relays of more transmission lines and ultimately well over 250 generators. What this illustrates is how the working of an interconnected grid like the Northeastern one is very much a delicate balancing act that goes well until someone cuts their tolerances a bit too narrow, as was the case here.


Naturally, we have now learned from these mistakes, the grid is more reliable than ever and no such blackout will ever occur again. Or that would be the assumption if there hadn’t been major shifts on the way the grid works since 2003. Rather than a focus on a limited number of large generating stations near population centers with a small number of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines to maximize local reactive power and grid reliability due to a lack of need for AC phase synchronization, we now see a trend of many small generators in the form of VRE (variable renewable energy) that are neither dispatchable nor provide reactive power, while requiring a massive increase in transmission capacity and scale.

We’re already seeing the issues with this type of change cropping up, with early last year Japan seeing itself plunged into a power crisis as a result of an earthquake followed by intense frigid weather that stretched the grid to its limits. During this Winter weather, output from VRE generators was minimal, and not enough gas or coal capacity was available to make up the difference. This led to a call by the government to reduce power usage by industry and households, allowing the country to scrape by.

A year prior, Texas got its own blast of frigid Winter weather, leading to the 2021 Texas power crisis. Although there was initially a lot of confusion about the causes, ultimately the culprit was a lack of capacity. Part of this was caused by a lack of winterization of equipment leading to a lot of gas capacity becoming unavailable, the other part was a lack of input from VRE sources, which sharply dropped off when they would have been most useful:

ERCOT's hourly electricity generation by source from February 7-17, 2021. (source: US EIA)
ERCOT’s hourly electricity generation by source from February 7-17, 2021. (source: US EIA)

Although winterizing equipment will help Texas to some extent, ultimately grid reliability relies on a number of fundamental factors, one of which is having sufficient dispatchable (reserve) power, whether that is spinning or reactive reserve power. Adding more transmission lines to more remote (intermittent) generators would seem to run counter to the goal of making the grid reliable, at least if avoiding a scenario like rolling blackouts is part of this reliability goal. The lack of reliable dispatchable generators is a major issue which countries like South Africa have been struggling with for years now, causing massive economical damage.

If the goal is to somehow integrate more intermittent generators and associated transmission lines into the grid, this will soon hit practical limits before grid stability can no longer be guaranteed. This is the topic of a lot of research, with Tingting Xu et al. (2021) indicating a maximum of 25% PV solar and 60% wind VRE power in Japan’s grid. Modeling of a number of grid architectures that assume a high uptake of VRE by Oliver Smith et al. (2022) in Science Advances finds that grid reliability is likely to suffer no matter whether microgrids or whole-house battery storage are used.

Increased Importance

With how much of modern day society relies on electricity, it is more important than ever that we get grid reliability right. This means all the basics, such as planning in sufficient dispatchable power to cover the needs of the coming days, weeks and months, as well as performing regular maintenance and emergency drills. A lot of this is the domain of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the six regional entities (grids) within North America.

NERC’s authority was expanded after the 2003 blackout  with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but as the 2021 Texas power crisis and California’s continuing struggle with annual rolling blackouts illustrate, this does not stop the constant drop in dispatchable, local generating capacity. With this shift comes the prospect of more blackouts, whether the friendly, preannounced rolling kind or the type that caught the North-East by surprise in 2003.

87 thoughts on “The 2003 Northeast Blackout And The Harsh Lessons Of Grid Failures

  1. Doesn’t it seem like the grid itself is the problem though? Surely this could be solved by decentralization and redundancy. If every city (or neighborhood, or even house) produced its own electricity, large-scale failure would be impossible, and small-scale failures could be solved by temporary relocation. I feel like the world should be moving away from monolithic infrastructure, given the fragility we’re starting to see in it.

    1. Quite the opposite, the grid is decentralized, which is why a problem with a generation station in one country could cause problems in another. This really shouldn’t and can’t be avoided however.
      It shouldn’t because it would exclude non-baseline power from even being on the grid in the first place.
      It can’t because most people could not afford the $10,000 per month electric bill that it would result from so little power being available in over 90% of our current services areas.

      As for redundancy, that is certainly true, and a lot of redundancy has been added to the system in the last decades. At this point it is less a matter of “IF”, and more a matter of squabbling over who is paying :P (Standard procedure for anything governed at this scale)

      1. “the grid is decentralized, which is why a problem with a generation station in one country could cause problems in another.”

        Huh? I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

        1. No, he’s correct. What you mean by “decentralization” is actually balkanization into separate power “islands” that can operate independently without trade. It means that everyone should have the infrastructure to power themselves, no matter how redundant and costly that becomes.

          “Decentralization” only means the lack of central authority between cooperative entities. It doesn’t imply the system is inherently any more robust against the failure of any one part.

          Sometimes decentralization is for the worse. For example, the “decentralization” of renewable energy generators depends on the large scale sum average of all of its parts. In other words, “It’s always windy somewhere”. But if some parts are missing, some transmission lines break down, the system breaks into smaller islands where the large scale average no longer counts – it doesn’t matter if it’s windy somewhere else because you don’t have access to the power.

          1. Decentralized, I think that is better than having some agency of the US government controlling the energy infrastructure.
            Single point of failure through incompetence.

          2. Balkanize or Balkanise
            n verb divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups.

            1920s: from the Balkan Peninsula (where this was done in the late 19th and early 20th cent.) + -ize.

            Source: Concise Oxford English dictionary

            And for completeness:
            decentralize or decentralise
            n verb [often as adjective decentralized] transfer (authority) from central to local government. >divide (a large organization) into smaller separate units.

            Conclusion: Don’t believe every commenter, they might be flawed.

          3. >Conclusion: Don’t believe every commenter, they might be flawed.

            Ah, the argument by dictionary. Merriam-Webster says “divide, compartmentalize”

            Being de-centralized or separately controlled through local authorities (as the power grid actually is) doesn’t mean it isn’t inter-dependent. Demanding that every city and town become self-sufficient in terms of power would be balkanization, as they would have to stop co-operating, trading power, and insulate themselves from each other – i.e. “balkanize”.

          1. In EU we pay about 0.70 EUR / kWh from the grid. Operating a private genset could actually be cheaper but even if it’s running totally off-grid you must pay tax for energy you’ve generated for yourself – so grid comes out about 0.15 EUR cheaper.

          2. Where I am, we pay around $0.10 to $0.13. Significant amounts of that are nuclear, solar, and wind, but the majority is natural gas, due to its fast and efficient load-responsiveness.

            I never suspected that the EU tax on generating your own power was greater than my whole power budget.

          3. GD law abiders…must?
            How are they going to tax power you generate and use locally?
            You guys really are indoctrinated beyond help.

            0.70 euro / kwh?
            Time for ‘Death Race 2000’ on just stop oil twits.

    2. “and small-scale failures could be solved by temporary relocation.”

      Believing that you can relocate to avoid small-scale failures implicitly just relies on a different type of monolithic infrastructure. Transportation networks get disrupted just as often as electrical grids.

          1. Exactly. Believing you can easily get from place to place is the same thing as believing you can get electricity anywhere. Both rely on infrastructure capability, and it’s far easier to make electrical systems robust.

          2. > Both rely on infrastructure capability

            In that case it was the local authorities who closed the road, and apparently some escaped by taking dirt roads around the blockade, while others were stuck in the traffic jam and got burned alive.

          3. “In that case it was the local authorities who closed the road”

            In other words…
            local authorities were attempting to manage the local road infrastructure…
            which was similarly failing.

            Especially in a place like Maui, travel infrastructure is *very* fragile.

          4. Dude: They didn’t dismantle the barricade because they had excessive respect for authoriti. Most were rich, the rest acclimated to the government tit. Both groups suffer from delusions about government helpfulness.

            It was one of two roads out of town, the power was out but nobody went back to take down the barricade they had just put up. At some point the abandoned cars made it academic.

            It’s better than Paradise CA, where they died because they had narrowed the road _on_purpose_. To make the small town feel more suburban, slow traffic on the two lane highway. Bunch of retired wineglass farting bay aryans, thought their poop don’t stink.

          5. “the power was out but nobody went back to take down the barricade they had just put up.”

            Did you read the linked article? There were crews working on downed live power lines. It wasn’t safe. As it turns out it was overall safer than staying, but it’s not like the crew working on the *also* lethal power lines could know that. Another road also ended up being fatally blocked due to a downed power line.

            The fire swept the town in under an hour. No one would’ve been able to predict which way was the safest and which wasn’t.

          6. The fire took 1 hour to go through the town. All power was out at that point.

            They had about 12 hours notice it was coming. It didn’t start in the town.

            Don’t give the government incompetents a pass.

          7. “Don’t give the government incompetents a pass.”

            You’re welcome to criticize the preparedness beforehand and the speed of the response. Those are all fair discussions to have, however, you’re criticizing different people than the emergency responders. Criticizing emergency personnel for not letting vehicles through a road with live power lines is just silly.

      1. not really, but mainly because most utilities have half arsed the thing. “smart grid” to most electric utilities means “automatic meter reading” plus a bunch of stuff they have zero intention of doing.

    3. I have solar panels so I’m all for this outlook, but I’m still on the grid too as backup. Texas/ERCOT should pay residents more for pumping into the grid but the residuals I get in a tiny check at year end are laughable. Though with everything going on with ERCOT right now, I’m thinking I may need to bite the bullet on a battery or generator…. like… SOON.

      Unfortunately due to economic headwinds and just plain math, a third of Americans rent versus own a home. Good luck getting landlords to pay the money to put a dynamo/windmill/solar/whatever on a property when the renters can just pay the bill themselves. Also, local and state governments can override a lot of common sense. ERCOT seems determined to not add batteries to the Texas grid despite them saving our asses from probably multiple rolling blackouts during the miserable heat wave this past summer.

      1. In Texas, power is cheap, total commercial solar has massive panel area, wind peaks align well with heat load, and there’s plenty of nuclear power.

        As such, there’s a large supply of power in most areas, and the cost will be low. Unless the bulk wholesale power cost is significantly over $0.20/kWh, nuclear fuel costs require huge subsidies, otherwise Comanche Peak would have already doubled its reactor count. Comanche peak was set for a rubber-stamp approval of the expansion, until the natural gas boom knocked the floor out of the market.

        Also, apparently Texas is now the leading state (by kWh produced) for commercial solar power, as well the state with the largest year-on-year capacity addition.

        It’s also a really good fit for the Texas energy-demand patterns. We get a lot of solar energy at the same time as the peak demand for residential air conditioning.

        And land is cheap enough that it’s usually easy to convert a disused pasture into a panel farm. Whether it fully covers the nearby neighborhood demand or not, it at least alleviates demand while dramatically cutting line losses from the nearest generator plant.

        You’re not going to see much earn-back on grid-connected solar in Texas, except possibly from Federal subsidies. As Texas does not have income tax, and most other taxes(property, sales, etc) in Texas are directly earmarked for related expenses, there’s not a huge pot of general-budget revenue to be randomly used on subsidies. Of course, it means paychecks go further, although not as far as, for example, Tennessee…

        At least Texas doesn’t have the TVA getting jealous of every “power plant” operated by a citizen. I have friends there, and it’s apparently nearly impossible to get permission for a solar installation that might be suitable for grid connection (even if no such connection is planned or configured). They’re pretty aggressive with the fines, too.

    4. this is the way life was for most cities and towns about 100 yrs ago. the problem was that these cities and towns were their own islands and synchronization of voltage and frequency became a large barrier.

      And when those things got figured out, the issue became cost. the cost to build new generation and maintain and repair existing generation was larger than one very large generator serving a much larger area. And of course, no one wanted to build additional generation when existing wasnt at its rated limit. Which, of course, means loading each generator to maximum values, leaving no contingency capacity, causimg cascading failures.

      The problem, i think, is the accountant’s philosophy of not leaving a capacity buffer for emergencies, acting like nothing ever goes wrong or fails. The engineering philosophy of planning for eventual failures needs to be the philosophy that should be followed.

      The federal govt, through FERC and their partnerships with regional system operators are trying to keep this from happening again…but the accountants are not letting their philosophy go away quietly

  2. I remember the 2003 blackout and there was a bit more to what caused this to happen. Their monitoring system was run by a UNIX system on the local network and received messages from computers running Windows. Well, a computer virus targeting Windows computers spread through their system and flooded the communications network so that the UNIX based monitoring system wasn’t getting messages.

    So, Windows as a mission critical system and worst, Windows as a mission critical system on a network.
    It reminds me of the time LAX airport thought it smart to replace a UNIX based communications machine/software with a port to Windows and they only found out months later that Windows could not run continuously for over 49.7 days or something like that. That’s right, there were so many people using Ctl-Alt-Del to reboot Windows that it took a few years to learn that it wouldn’t run continuously over 49 days. So LAX put in a scheduled reboot at 30 days and the new guy thought it dumb to reboot a ‘working’ system. Both the primary and the failsafe(Windows needs a backup system) computers crashed and the crash caused the system to not boot back to a functional system.

    There was the CTX railway signalling system failure(computer virus again) and probably thousands of others which went unreported.

    So ya, good thing nobody uses Windows in mission critical systems any more.

    1. I didn’t hear anything about virus. What I heard were the result of race condition confusing computer. The computer received multiple simultaneous command which caused the computer to stall and not trigger alarm for over an hour.

    2. Actually, while ‘I’ would prefer our systems to run on Linux, our Energy Management System (EMS) runs on Windows for transmission and gas. Our distribution management system is Red Hat . But it is hidden behind layers of protection and only a few processes are allowed to connect to the outside world. I just roll with it, because that is what our Engineers and IT department are familiar with. That said systems are redundant, even to the point of backup control centers (which are tested every year) if one is targeted physically or otherwise.

      Still all the ‘unstable’ power sources are a ‘real’ concern. Wind and Solar are not ‘base’ energy sources and cause huge swings in power availability. For some reason the population doesn’t understand that Sun doesn’t shine at night (and sometimes during the day), nor does the wind blow all the time. That is where Hydro, coal, gas, nuclear energy sources come in… And we know what the alarmists think about those sources :rolleyes: .

      1. “That is where Hydro, coal, gas, nuclear energy sources come in… And we know what the alarmists think about those sources :rolleyes: .”

        Something something drying up reservoir. Bet you all didn’t see THAT coming.

    3. Citation needed. Seriously.

      Who is ‘they’? ComEd? ConEd? Ontario power? TVA? Duke Power? Southern Company? There are so many players in the eastern interconnect…Of course you don’t know, because you are just repeating Linux ‘enthusiast’ derp.

      The 2003 blackout was caused by the same thing as all cascade power grid failures. Insufficient spinning reserves on one of the highest power demand hours of the year.

      1. says something about a bug in the alarm system that didn’t alert the operators to what was happening with overloaded lines in their system, which then cascaded down the line. Another article said the same thing. No mention that I could find that it had anything to do with underlaying M$ Windoze. Could well have been Linux or whatever. A bug in software :) .

        Of course , at a Hydro facility I was at trouble shooting a control system (back in the 90s), we found a real ‘bug’ (moth) had shorted out an input board which caused the plant control system to shutdown.

  3. 100% VRE is expensive, but with seasonal storage (hydrogen or renewable methane) it can obviously work.

    One of the paper even explicitly says “Without considering adjustments to power storage.”.

    1. Yeah, only problem is, nobody has the technology or the resources to build seasonal power storage. The amounts of energy and the cost of it is something beyond our current means.

      1. Salt cavern hydrogen storage is proven, but salt caverns are limited.

        Old gas fields are essentially limitless, but more chemically reactive and porous. How well they store hydrogen is being actively researched (together with bio-methanation). Assuming there are no unexpected roadblocks, the resource investment for 100% renewable with underground storage is nowhere near beyond our means. Beyond our greed perhaps.

        We won’t have to starve to accomplish it, we might have to settle for some cheaper cars/homes/holidays/etc. The level of consumption in first world countries is ridiculously high, even compared to a couple decades ago.

          1. “Could, might, ought to”…. The point is, hydrogen production has very low efficiency and it’s costly to build, and it requires clean water which takes more energy to purify, so it isn’t getting done. Fix that first, then you can start thinking about where you’d store it…

            But even before you start stockpiling hydrogen, everything you can possibly make would be needed for making ammonia fertilizers, which are currently made out of natural gas. Then iron reduction and steel making, then synthetic fuels… there’s a lot of takers for green hydrogen if only you could make it economically.

        1. >The level of consumption in first world countries is ridiculously high, even compared to a couple decades ago.

          A good three quarters of the people subsist on this consumption – it’s called the services economy. The vast majority of people are no longer required to provide basic subsistence to everybody, so the rest of the people have nothing to do but consume for a living.

          1. Getting rid of all the useless programmers is very optimistic.

            I’d like to shoot for getting rid of all the negative producing programmers. The ones that create more work than they do. That would be a start.

  4. Technical specifics weren’t the root cause of the Texas blackout; they were mere details. ERCOT’s poor leadership should be held accountable. As the governing body, they are responsible for regulating redundancy and preparedness requirements for generators. And letting the politicians interfere with their “regulations are bad” or “windmills cause cancer” or whatever nonsense, ERCOT completely failed the populace.

    If you’re going to run a technical industry, you have to be the engineers first. The politicians may give you the money to run it, and they may not give you everything you ask for, but you are bound to run it responsibly with the resources you’ve been given.

      1. It’s a solved problem.
        Capacity payment prices will need to increase as more low reliability power comes online.
        Prices for low reliability power will need to go down.
        That’s politically unpopular.
        Hang the politicians that object from lampposts.

    1. Actually, technicals rather than regulations were exactly the root cause, and this has been covered in some detail previously (including on HAD).

      People forget that Texas is pretty damn big, and most of the good places for power generation aren’t directly adjacent to large populations. Whenever there is a regional power disaster, Texas easily provides linemen and support equipment to simultaneously repair the lines of several adjacent states. On the other hand, when Texas itself suffers statewide damage (as happened this time), it takes far more linemen and trucks to make a dent in it than any one neighbor state even has.

      Despite being “independent”, the Texas grid does have power-sharing with all of our neighbor states and Mexico. In fact, I personally know people in western Oklahoma who only survived because the Texas northern interconnect was powering over a third of Oklahoma during the worst of the storm. North Texas had that much excess capacity, and simply couldn’t supply it down to Hill County because most of the lines near Austin were down due to the ice storms.

      That storm wasn’t by any means the worst storm Texas has experienced. But it was the one with the widest damage footprint and largest temperature anomaly in modern times, and Texans aren’t prepared for hundred-year-event cold cycles. Most of our weather fatalities are heat-related, and it shows in our planning and even our architecture.

      ERCOT did screw some things up. For example, any gas well feeding a generator facility shouldn’t be eligible for voluntary load-shedding rebates, so as to avoid reducing fuel supply in a power crisis. But even that is only something a reasonable and prudent man would have noticed in hindsight; generator fuel supply hasn’t been the critical point of any previous hazardous weather event, after all.

      But most of the ERCOT-did-it momentum didn’t come from people trying to fix the problem. It mostly got amplified by people with agendas, often agendas mostly unrelated to ERCOT itself. For example, the TVA was dealing with one of its cities planning on going independent (Memphis I think), and aggressively exaggerated details of the Texas disaster as a scare tactic. Ironically, the TVA later suffered a serious weather-induced outage of the kind that only an independent grid “like Texas” could possibly suffer.

      The biggest single cause of fatalities in Texas was the fact that Texas residents normally do not face such extreme dold even during severe weather events. Not only do they not have a large amount of winter clothing and heating equipment, they’re also not used to thinking in such terms. Texans are usually much more concerned with heat than cold, and the home construction is often biased toward letting heat escape rather than trapping it.

      For that matter, a surprising number of Texans don’t even own anything heavier than a sweater. At all. They don’t think in terms of heat preservation, layering, huddling. People froze to death in apartments with all the internal doors open and didn’t even think to minimize the circulated space to trap heat.

      Regulation won’t fix Texas’s problems(see all the non-Texas grids that operate under the regulations but suffered serious damage despite not experiencing the core of the storm like Texas did), but it certainly can make our energy much more expensive.

      Given that more Texans die to heat in any given year than died to cold during this disaster, any increase in the cost of electricity translates directly to increased summertime heat fatalities.

      We just came off of several weeks of consistent 110 degree weather (in the shade), and had multiple three-day stretches where the ambient temperature did not drop below 100 degrees. Heat kills more people than cold in Texas.

      To give a datapoint: I have an average-sized efficient home of recent construction, with an efficient and large HVAC system. My cost per kWh is $0.11. And both July and August averaged over $400 each. I have neighbors who raised their setpoints over 90 degrees to try to save money. Two of them went to the ER.

      1. TL;DR summary:

        I won’t say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
        Rather, “if more people die from the fix, it ain’t a fix.”

        Causing 200 people to die to avoid the statistical risk of 100 people dying is not a good exchange.

        And, when other entities are already operating under the “fix”, but still suffered equivalent damage (relative to the intensity of the storm), it just might be that the fix isn’t merely a poor fix. It might not even be a fix.

        Also, for any sufficiently-complex system, any arbitrary change will cause significant unforeseen consequences.

        If anyone cares, ERCOT makes real-time data available as both graphs and CSV. This includes many things, including total supply, supply-per-kind, and demand. The CSV data is 5-minute granular time-series.
        It is often interesting when used in conjunction with nationwide power outage monitoring data from

        Right this moment, almost 8 times as many customers are without power in Pennsylvania as in Texas, and 2.5 times as many customers are without power in California. Based on long-term watching, this is pretty normal.

  5. I’m always kinda surprised at how disruptive power outages are on a family level. I grew up in earthquake territory and we always had an earthquake bag kicking around with about a weeks worth of canned food, a couple 3 gallon water jugs (use one, buy one, keeping a couple in “inventory”) and a propane grill for cooking stuff which we had anyway. Plus some candles, random flashlights and oil lamps even. We regularly had power outages in winter with heavy rains, sometimes 1-2 days long which didn’t even spoil the food in the freezer. I guess if you have life-critical medications that need to be in a fridge a small gasoline generator, a peltier cooler could be added too.
    With concerns about climate change I think power outages and heat (or cold.. but if I lived somewhere with life threatening cold winters I’d be sure to have a month or two of firewood stacked for winter) are the biggest threats. People should consider that; fortunately I’m young and for enough that I could survive indefinitely in 100+F humid summers in Houston as long as there is shade and water. But if I got old or other medical issues id seriously consider a climate change move.
    Sorry for rambling I’m tired.

    1. Ditto. People lived without power for most of our species’ history, it’s not like it’s impossible. Just different from what’s become normal.

      People need to go camping more often, or just unplug for a while. Turn off the main breaker, turn off the internet, play some board games by flashlight for an evening. Put the phone in airplane mode and read a book.

      It’s weirdly relaxing but a lot of folks never try it because the tendrils have grown too far into their brain.

      1. The irony is that the powers that be are trying their damnest to make it so people can’t live like we used to.

        For example, no more homes heated by wood because of air quality regulations limiting the amount of particulate emissions from wood burning.

      2. You know, I do actually think phones/internet are too big in people’s lives, but as someone who actually has experience with power outages in extreme weather, I think you need to get some perspective. If the grid fails for a long time in the heat, there are way too many people who are going to die, and it won’t be because their brains have rotted. It will be because they can’t survive without artificial cooling, whether for medicine or sensitivity to heat or because they can’t avoid ever doing physical work in their life and the heat’s bad enough that you just can’t do anything about it without cooling.

        1. I think the same. In an emergency, a mobile phone really is a life saver.

          Also, what user Myself seems to forget is that there was CB radio since the 1950s or so (here in Europe since mid 70s).

          So you didn’t need a mobile phone as nearly as much as you need now.

          In the 20th century, the CB band was full of people. You could call for help with a simple walkie talkie (CH9 and CH19 were emergency channels, afaik).

          So it’s not true that people didn’t need wireless communication. Back in the days, there was CB and amateur radio.

          While nowadays it’s still there, yes, the number of active operators is much lower than back then.

      3. “Ditto. People lived without power for most of our species’ history, it’s not like it’s impossible. Just different from what’s become normal.”

        Such a nonsense! We can’t compare the middle age living style/the US pioneer’s days with todays living style!
        We don’t live in tepee, camps or caves.
        The wildlife/wilderness can’t support billions of people!

        People who live in a little town or who mentally live in the past do usually forget that the circumstances of back then/now are entirely different.

        The rivers and woods would be totally polluted if masses of people would appear suddenly. Diseases would spread, causing millions of dead people lying all around, which in turn would be eaten by wildlife. Then, that wildlife would get sick, too.

        No, we can’t “just go back”. A life without electricity is possible, but it needs decades of transition. New waterworks and sewage works must be build which work without electricity, for example. Then, aqueducts must be build, which work without pumps. Cities must be changed to fit into this picture. Et cetera et cetera..

        1. The discovery of deep coal mining saved people from destroying all the forests in Europe at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

          We were literally going Easter Island back then, because people were producing charcoal from wood to make iron. The situation got so bad that people started to have trouble finding large enough trees to build ships and houses, because everything bigger than a bush was chopped down and burned.

      4. “People need to go camping more often, or just unplug for a while. Turn off the main breaker, turn off the internet, play some board games by flashlight for an evening. Put the phone in airplane mode and read a book. ”

        Yeah, I hope they go by foot or by bicycle. Imagine thousands of people visiting nature by car. What a pollution! 🙄

          1. Nature that doesn’t eat you is neutered and disneyfied, for children.

            Get a pack mule, and go prospecting sometime. You can stop back in civilization every few months if you want. Put real nature (and real gold) in reach… and who needs weekends?


      5. While I don’t disagree overall, it’s important to remember that people routinely died from things that we would not normally see as a hazart to live today, as well. A simpler life is not necessarily a safer or longer life. I’ll agree that it’s often a more fulfilling one, but that might not matter to someone dying of a systemic infection gotten from a farming-related injury.

        But, as you said, simply disconnecting from the available modernities does good things for the brain. And, if the modernities ever disappear, you already have a head start on adapting to the new normal.

    2. A young, healthy person being able to survive lying around in the shade doesn’t prove much. If you’ve got to actually do any physical work – for instance, cut and move a tree that a hurricane has toppled when someone needs to drive to the hospital – it can be different. You might find that even if you drink water until you’re sick, you will quickly approach heatstroke.

      The last time I risked heatstroke, it took a long shower in cold water plus a long time lying in front of a high velocity fan in air conditioning before I felt that I had recovered. In a power outage, I couldn’t have done all that, although I could probably run a fan off of battery and pour drinking water on myself to not die.

      The last time I had an extended outage was due to a hurricane, and back then the weather wasn’t so bad or maybe I was just too young to be as bothered by it. But we were able to cool off well enough in the shade with a battery powered fan for a few days, so I think the dew point must have been better than it is now. We still had to deal with food spoilage, which happens very quickly in a hot house. Of course, now there’s sub-$100 12v refrigerant coolers (much more efficient than peltier) and some solar, and that’d help a bit. But still, the potential for medicine to spoil without enough redundant ways to keep it within its correct temperature range is still horrifyingly high.

      On the other hand, if it’s cold you can have pipes burst, so you have to protect them or drain them. Either way, you might not have water, with a possibility of having flooding. If you have animals, it can be hard to provide for them, and if you need to drive somewhere, you might be trapped, so even a mild winter is still a problem even if it does seem easier to me to keep from freezing to death in a house without power. Especially by burning things.

      Basically, sorry to ramble but electricity is the only widely available way to maintain the currently accepted minimum living conditions despite current extremes of weather. We have to expect people to stop working and focus on surviving, anytime the grid is down during significant fractions of the year in a large number of places. And we can’t expect them all to be able to survive, either – you mentioned the old, and those with medical issues, but obviously there’s going to be some of both groups anywhere. And those too poor to have supplies.

      1. yeah agree. What I was trying to get at though was that I am personally fine in the heat. Like, did triathlons in 100+ humid summers in NY and lived in Houston for a few years (including hurricane Harvey), rode my bike to work every day and still did other stuff outdoors. I’m ok in the heat, even savage heat and humidity, but if I wasn’t, or if it became clear that I couldn’t do that I would seriously consider a move. I am well aware that that is a very reductionist point of view, and “just move then” isn’t at all a viable option for some/most people. But having been in about every natural disaster possible, for me personally, I would not sacrifice my (or family) safety for something like that. I think a winter in VT with a couple months of firewood would be more “survivable” that a week or two in TX summer for most people. Add to that some personal responsibility like modest pile of non-perishable food, ability and knowledge to find/secure/sanitize water (not hard) and even means of hunting small game.. should be all set indefinitely. No one does that of course (except me I guess). Well, we just call it “camping” now ahhhaha

        1. Yeah I think I would have an easier time without aircon somewhere with ample water and non-dangerous heat, even if the tradeoff is likewise now always having electric heat in the winter. The worst cold I’ve been in for very long was staying in a 1700s farmhouse in late November in Massachusetts, and that was not great but seemed like I could deal with it. I imagine most houses are better than that, even in the deepest part of winter. If I were old or infirm, I’d have to get help saving up firewood or whatever my secondary heat source was, but I imagine I could make do.

  6. I was not long graduated, still living in my old college town, in an apartment complex full of other 20 somethings. Suddenly I had a free few-days vacation and so did everyone else so they were all coming out of the buildings. There were bonfires, strangers getting to know one another, people playing the guitar, shared but perhaps a bit warm drinks…

    I don’t want anyone to die of course. But I could so use another blackout like that right now!

  7. the thing i really hated about the 2003 blackout is that i was away from NYC for a vacation so i didn’t get to experience it! i was young and living in a 2nd floor walk-up in the city and i think i would have enjoyed the heck out of the novelty.

    of course i had a more than week-long outage a few months earlier, living in North Carolina, in the winter. it hardly ever sees freezing rain so when it does, *all the trees come down at the same time*. the only joy that outage gave me was leaving beer on the porch to keep it cool. other than that, it was misery even though it soon got warm enough that my survival was never really at question.

    nowadays i just keep thinking about all the things that would burst in my house if i let it freeze, or the body’s diminishing ability to survive labor as the dewpoint crosses 80F. 99% of power outages don’t risk either of those but the possibility of having one at the same time as an extreme weather event would keep me up at night if i thought about it. heck, i can get upset just thinking about how little time i would have to mess with it if my hydronic ‘boiler’ went out.

  8. @Maya Posch Said: “With how much more modern society relies today on constant access to electrical power than it did twenty, let alone fifty-eight years ago, exactly how afraid should we be of another, possibly worse blackout?”

    You should be VERY afraid! Never Forget: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”[1][2]

    * References:

    1. “You never let a serious crisis go to waste…” Rahm Emanuel (D), White House Chief of Staff for US President Barack Obama.

    2. Rahm Emanuel

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.