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The 12 Biggest Electrical Blackouts In History
On July 13, 1977, a power outage in New York City pushed its residents to the brink. Frustration with a failing economy, anxiety over the at-large serial killer Son of Sam, and a sweltering summer day and night resulted in mass looting across the city. It wasn’t all bad news, however; legend has it that the stealing of DJ equipment from hi-fi stores propelled DJ culture and hip hop music in the city. But the city was no stranger to being forced into darkness
Fifty years ago today, The Great Northeast Blackout affected approximately 30 million people in both the U.S. and Canada, making it the single biggest power failure in U.S. history at the time. In remembrance of its 50th anniversary, here are 12 of the biggest power failures around the world.
A faulty relay at Sir Adam Beck Station on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls led to what was then the biggest power failure in U.S. history. At 5:16 p.m., the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line began a domino effect resulting in a surge of power that overwhelmed transmission lines and put New York City in the dark at the height of a Tuesday rush hour. 800,000 people were reported trapped in the subway.
In addition to New York, power overloads and automatic system shutdowns affected 30 million people in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire,Vermont, Quebec, and Ontario. 10,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty police officers were called into service to prevent looting, although it turned out to be relatively calm and peaceful. Power was restored for most people within 13 hours.
When generators in the South Pranakhorn Powerplant in Samut Prakan failed, a nationwide blackout spread throughout Thailand. It would be over nine hours before authorities were able to restore power. In May 2013, Thailand suffered another major power failure, sparking memories of the massive incident of ’78.
On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout lasting 12 hours—and it was all thanks to the sun.
Sometimes, the sun emits billion-ton clouds of ionized gas, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). On March 10, 1989, a CME “about the size of 36 Earths” and equivalent to “the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time” escaped. On the 12th, the gas cloud crashed against Earth’s magnetosphere and caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Texas and Cuba.
Because of this celestial event, six million Quebec residents were thrust into darkness when the province’s power grid lost power. Schools and businesses were forced to close during the 12 hour blackout, as well as the Montreal Metro and Dorval Airport.
In 1999, approximately 97 million of the 160 million people living in Brazil lost power in what was the biggest blackout ever at the time. A bolt of lightning struck an electricity substation, which in turn shut down Itaipu, which was the largest power plant in the world.
1,200 military police officers were placed in Rio to avoid looting, while city tunnels in São Paulo were closed to prevent assaults. 60,000 subway riders were heavily inconvenienced. To make matters more complicated, the power system of Brazil was privatized days before the event. Mines and Energy Minister Rodolpho Tourinho assured that this had nothing to do with the outage, saying, “A lightning bolt is an exceptional fact, there is no reason for doubting the reliability of the Brazilian electrical system.”
A 12-hour power outage caused by a failure of an Uttar Pradesh substation triggered India’s northern grid to collapse. This affected about 226 million people, or roughly a quarter of the country’s population. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimated that the loss to business amounted to about $107.1 million.
Despite economic expansion in India, the blackout was used by some as an excuse to push for privatization of the electrical industry to bring it up to date. Enron was reported to have been contacted to help supply electricity during the crisis but insisted on a price that was three times higher than usual.
It took months before the real cause of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 was finally determined. Initially, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum blamed an outage at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, which the state’s Emergency Management Agency denied. What actually happened was a high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees, causing it to shut down. When the alarm system that would typically alert FirstEnergy Corporation failed, the incident was ignored. In the next 90 minutes, system operators tried to figure out what happened while three other lines switched off as a consequence of the first line’s failure.
This started a domino effect, and by 4:05 p.m. Southeast Canada and eight Northeastern U.S. states were without power. 50 million people were inconvenienced for up to two days in what turned out to be the biggest blackout in North American history. 11 people died and there was a reported $6 billion in damages. The incident prompted the creation of a joint task force between the U.S. and Canada to minimize future blackouts.
Italy’s 2003 blackout affected almost all of the country’s 57 million people. Usually a middle-of-the-night power outage means that few people will notice it. However, this event occurred during the early morning hours after Rome’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival. Because of this, trains were still running at 3:01 a.m. when a fault on the Swiss power system caused the overloading of two internal lines near to the Italian border. About 110 trains carrying more than 30,000 passengers were stranded as a result.
At 10:23 a.m. on a Thursday morning, a failure in a 500 kilovolt transmission line between Cilegon and Saguling in West Java cut electricity supplies, leading to a massive 5,000 megawatt shutdown. Jakarta, the capital of the fourth most populated country in the world, lost power, and half of the Indonesian population — 100 million people — were without electricity for almost 11 hours.
The event didn’t come completely without warning. The state power company had been struggling to fulfill electricity demand following the 1997 monetary crisis and, one year earlier, the government held a special energy summit to plan for increasing the country’s electrical capacity.
When German power company switched off a high-voltage line across the River Ems in order to let a cruise ship pass, 10-15 million Europeans lost power. The company said that the problems began in northwestern Germany when its network became overloaded, possibly due to that manual switch off (although transmission lines had been shut down in the past without incident). The blackouts stopped trains in Germany and trapped dozens of people in elevators in France and Italy. Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected by the outage.
Winter storms resulted in a nearly two-week blackout for 4.6 million people around the central Chinese city of Chenzhou. Frustratingly, many citizens were without power during Chinese New Year celebrations. Some residents told reporters that they had to walk one kilometer to a well and back in freezing temperatures just to procure water. The official Xinhua News Agencysaid 11 electricians died while working to restore power, and the storm’s death toll exceeded 60.
When the Itapiu hydroelectric dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border suddenly stopped producing 17,000 megawatts of power, outages quickly spread through both countries. Suspiciously, the blackouts came two days after 60 Minutes reported that previous Brazilian power outages were caused by hackers. The CBS news magazine would later report that the 2009 incident was also the work of hackers, but a Wikileaks document would eventually refute that claim.
To prevent hacking, a voice command was now necessary to disrupt the power system, and access was only given to a small group of authorized operators. Any sabotage from internal employees would be deadly to the saboteur, and investigators would have found “physical evidence, including the body of the perpetrator,” had the 2009 incident been the work of foul play.
In the largest electrical outage in history (so far), the July 31st blackout of India affected an area encompassing about 670 million people, which is around 9% of the world’s population. On the 31st, three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, affecting 22 states from the country’s Eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.
Citizens of Delhi dealt with 89% humidity and, in West Bengal, hundreds of miners were trapped underground for hours after their lifts broke down. In the most disturbing and vivid detail, The Guardian reported that electric crematoriums stopped operating, some with bodies left half burnt before wood was brought in to stoke the furnaces. Overloading and human error were eventually blamed for the troubles.
This post originally appeared in 2014.