Comparison of major grid failures in United States and around the world

Comparison of major grid failures in United States and around the world (on photo: Power outage in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy)

Power Surges

The creation and delivery of power is one basic infrastructure expected by all modern industrial societies. Power distribution basics started in the US in the early 1900s when the first AC grid was established.

Since 12 independent power grids were completed in the lower 48 states in the mid-1950s, reliability has been a customer concern. Parts of these earlier grids have been updated, and four of the US power grids are tied to similar power grids in Canada. In this context, reliability concerns itself with an understanding of why there are power failures.

A power surge in one part of the extended grid may bring down other sections when they are shut down for self-protection. This action is a self-protection mechanism for the grid which preserves the equipment, but extends the outage to more customers. As one grid becomes larger and more interconnected with other grids, higher power demands, and perhaps larger surges, may be expected.

Shutdown self-protection, intrinsic design margins, and redundant paths become keys to maintaining reliability.

Until a smart grid is developed, which would separate and isolate sections of the grid, the whole grid could come crashing down. Maintenance practices, the incidence of extreme weather events, and the loss of transmission lines or power substations may then dominate the causes of power outages in this complex, dynamic system.

Major power outages

Table I presents a summary of major power outages over the last 45 years. Because this is a time dependent table, one can determine if the power reliability is improving or declining over the years.

Because the evolution of the power grid is dynamic, one must be careful when drawing conclusions. The items in the following tables show only the major power outages in the US & Canada, Europe, and the rest of the world (International). These failures are typically known by date, weather conditions, grid conditions, cause or causes, locations of failures, extent of failures in population, and duration of the power outage.

Table I – A Summary of Major Grid Failures

YearsUS & CanadaEuropeInternational
1965-19883 fails3 fails1 fail
1989-19942 failsNone1 fail
1995-19998 fails1 fail7 fails
2000-200511 fails7 fails15 fails
2006-200933 fails16 fails20 fails
Totals:57 Total27 total44 total

The definition of a major grid failure is:

  1. an unplanned event (down for maintenance or rotating blackouts don’t count) that
  2. affects at least 1000 customers (in this study the number is 30,000 minimum) for
  3. a total downtime of at least 1,000,000 customer hours.

Power outage frequency

Few major incidents were reported in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 80s. The last 20 years reflects many more outages, and so was divided into smaller groups.

Reporting in developed countries (US & Canada and Europe) could not be responsible for this increase.

This increase appears to be real, and probably reflects two factors; increasing load on the grid, and the increased cable miles with higher interconnectedness of the grid. The incident curves for the US and Europe are very similar to each other, but different from the international curve.

Perhaps, in some of the international entries the change in reporting methods may have added to the increase in reported incidents over the last 45 years.

Twelve power grids exist across the US & Canada, and some parts of Mexico.

In Western Europe, one large grid exists, and several smaller grids connect most countries. Most of the rest of the world has small selfcontained power grids within their country, and are not connected to other grids. It is less likely that power outages beyond the US & Canada or Europe could meet the three criteria for major outages.

In fact, if one counts all outages in the US & Canada, there were 76 events in the 1995 to 1999 years, and 140 from 2000 to 2005 [5]. The general trend of Table I reflects increasing major outages since 1970, as well as all outages.

Downed power lines in Chevy Chase, Md., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy

A man walks his dog near downed power lines in Chevy Chase, Md., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012


Table II shows a basic breakdown of the high level causes. In some cases, there could be multiple interacting events. For example, a windstorm may take down one segment of transmission lines, and that leads to a surge elsewhere which takes down a power grid temporarily.

Table II – A Breakdown of Major Grid Failures by Cause

Main CausesUS & CanadaEuropeInternational
Snow Storm13 fails3 fails3 fails
Summer Storms11 fails2 fails1 fail
Hurricane8 failsNoneNone
High Winds8 fails1 fail3 fails
Unknown 3 fails8 fails11 fails
 Substation3 fails2 fails7 fails
 Transmission Line Failures3 fails 2 fails 4 fails
Lightning strike 2 failsNoneNone
Heat wave 2 fails2 fails 3 fails
Other  4 fails7 fails12 fails
Total: 57 fails27 fails 44 fails

This type of event is reflected only as “high winds” in Table II (i.e. greater than 60 MPH). These events most often occur in the Spring and Fall months as weather patterns change.

Two events are listed as cyber attack. These reflect the events of January 2005, and Sept 2007 that brought down the power grid in Brazil.

The biggest single cause listed in Table II is snow storms (this includes ice storms) in the US & Canada occurring mainly from December to March. The second biggest item is summer storms. The combination of high winds with lightning and heavy rains may cause an outage.

Hurricanes are next at eight events, mostly along the Gulf Coast. Six hurricane events occurred in just three years (2003 to 2005), and this group reflects an irregular hurricane cycle for powerful storms. This cycle has multiple nodes with repeat times of 22 years, 35 years, and 50 years. The years from 1970 to 1995 were a period when the annual number of hurricanes was low, and only one caused an outage.

One hurricane in 2008 caused a major outage, and the hurricane trend appears to be for fewer and less powerful storms in the near future [4]. The number of hurricanes in years 1965-2002, and 2006-2009 produced only two major power outages in those 41 years.

Transmission towers down causing massive power outages

For six days in January 1998, freezing rain coated Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick with 7-11 cm (3-4 in) of ice. Trees and hydro wires fell and utility poles and transmission towers came down causing massive power outages, some for as long as a month. It was the most expensive natural disaster in Canada. According to Environment Canada, the ice storm of 1998 directly affected more people than any other previous weather event in Canadian history.


High winds were next in number.

This was important in the US, but not as important in Europe or International regions, though one cause of a power failure in Egypt was listed as “sandstorm”.

The “other category” for the US & Canada contains entries such as earthquake, flood, lightning strike, geomagnetic storm (Canada in 1989), and heat wave ( high power usage leading to grid failure).

This last incident, like the July 2006 New York City outage, and the August 2006 London outage, can be attributed to multiple events. A multi-day heat wave pushed power consumption of the grid to near its limit. A minor incident then brought the high stressed grid down.

The total of all the entries in the “other” category is important, but the events themselves are unique. The same is true of the “other” category for Europe and International.

Reference: Major Power Outages in the US, and around the World – James McLinn Rel-Tech Group (This article is part of the IEEE Reliability Society 2009 Annual Technology Report)


author-pic

Edvard - Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, buildings and industry fascilities. Designing of LV/MV switchgears. Professional in AutoCAD programming and web-design. Present on Google+.



3 Comments


  1. Vijay
    Feb 27, 2014

  2. Patrick Maurer
    Jan 16, 2014

    While I do not disagree with the results of your study, I believe there are underlying causes for the increase in outages in the US at least during the 10 year period from 1995-2005. The money spent for maintaining the electric grid was woefully short from what was required. Also the money spent for line clearance was reduced as well which contributed significantly to the number and duration of the outages. The power market also increased dramatically with more power being transmitted greater distances for economic purposes. This too put larger portions of the grid at risk due to weather related incidence. Isomers of these problems have been addressed recently but others remain to be fully resolved. There are independent transmission owners/operators that have purchased the HV transmission assets from utilities and have invested great amounts of capital to upgrade, expand, and maintain the grid in a more responsive manner.. This, as well as better grid operator training, I believe will reduce the number of major outages going forward. It is very difficult to build a grid that will totally resist the ravages of Mother Nature during major storms.


  3. Raouf ZNAIDI
    Dec 26, 2013

    “No Pain No Gain” this well known proverb is mostly suitable for Each similar work & effort which is highly considered & even command respect. Nonetheless I have a comment.
    Involved , Since 25 years, in extensive work focused on & HV system performance in polluted conditions in Northern Africa let me point out that almost 80% of power outages experienced by all Power utilities were due to external insulation problems.
    Combined Marine salt spray & Desert sand blowing by dominated winds were the main cause.Thanks for your valuable work Dear Edwards but I suggest that this work should be continued, updated & refined as well. Good Luck.

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