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Ten Years Ago, 50 Million People Lost Power

Ten years later people are remembering, energy companies are trying to get better, but the grid is the same

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Ten years ago today, 50 million people in the United States lost power. The great New York City blackout started at a power plant in Ohio, where a failed power line started a chain of failures that took out the power grids of the Northeastern United States and Canada for days and cost the economy something like $10 billion.

WNYC has a series up today remembering the blackout that left many stranded at work, in the dark, without food, air conditioning or a way home:

Scientific American spoke with experts on whether this kind of blackout could happen today. The answer is probably. Not a ton has changed in the actual power grid since 2003, says Jeff Dagle, a specialist in power-grid resilience based at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided some grant money for smart-grid technologies. But in terms of the grid itself, not so much. There were no fundamental changes in the way the grid is operated. You still have power lines and transformers and, mostly, central generation . At the transmission level, it’s pretty similar technology to what we had 10 years ago.

But there are some good signs. When the blackout happened, grid-reliability rules were not mandatory. Companies that didn’t comply to standards weren’t punished. Now, the government can fine them $1 million per violation, per day, to those who don’t comply. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the biggest change has been in organizing different companies that plug into the grid:

The greatest innovation in the management of the power grid in the past 10-15 years is the regional Independent System Operator, or ISO. The ISO is coordinator of grid planning and operations for the area served by its member companies. Generators and utilities interact through the ISO to coordinate and transact their business. When mature, an ISO also consolidates the otherwise fragmented practices over a wider area, creating immediate savings in shared reserves, and aggregate and smooth variability of wind energy.

And at TIME, Bryan Walsh says that the grid’s recent record is pretty good:

When it comes to performance, the grid’s actually doing quite well. PA Consulting Group notes that U.S. customers only lose power 1.2 times per year, for a total of 112 minutes, not counting disruptions from weather (more on that later). FERC notes that high-voltage transmission lines have been available for normal use 99.6% of the time over the past three years, not including planned outages. Major transmission lines caused power losses only twice in 2012, after averaging nine times a year from 2008 to 2011.

So, we might not have to deal with the inconvenience and economic cost of blackouts. But neither we will have the experience of cities like New York just dealing, as Gothamist remembered the crisis, “with people helping direct traffic, throwing impromptu parties (thanks to restaurants who gave out food since it’d have to be thrown away anyway), being buddies during walks home and offering to let friends and co-workers crash at their place.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

Can We Ever Stop Worrying About Blackouts?
Manhattan in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, a Day After Being Hit

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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