Power Outage: The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History
The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

Stephanie Schoppert - September 8, 2016

Ever since electricity became common in most developed households, the great fear has been losing it. Power companies are expected to keep the power flowing at all times or face severe backlash. Blackouts are met with panic, anger and fear if the power does not come back on quickly. But with increasing demand for power comes more blackouts around the world. Here are some of the biggest blackouts to ever occur.

1. July 2012 India Blackout – 620 Million People Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

The largest blackout in history occurred just after another large blackout on July 30th. Blackouts are not uncommon in India because the infrastructure that provides power to the country is very unreliable. The country loses 27% of the power it generates and during periods of high demand the power generated falls short by about 9%.

On July 30th, 2012 circuit breakers on the Bina-Gwalior line tripped. This line fed into a transmission section which then caused power failures throughout the grid. Power stations in the affected areas were shut down causing a shortage of 32 GW and leaving more than 300 million people without power. The exact cause of the trip was unknown but the hot Indian summer had led to high demands on power and it was suggested that some states tried to draw more power than what they were allotted to keep up with demand.

On July 31st, 2012 a relay problem occurred in the power grid near the Taj Mahal. This caused numerous power stations to go offline. 38% of the country’s power generation was lost which put over 600 million people out of power. 22 out of 28 Indian states were affected by the blackout which lasted more than a day in some areas. Power demands were once again blamed for issues with the power grid.

The blackout caused a number of problems. 200 miners were trapped down in the mines when the lifts to get them back to the surface lost power. More than 300 trains were affected by the power outage which led to numerous passengers having to be rescued from trains that were stopped en route. An investigation was conducted after the public outcry following the outage and it was recommended that a $400 billion plan to revamp the power grid be completed as soon as possible.

2. January 2nd, 2001 India Blackout – 230 Million People Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

On January 2nd, 2001 a failure of the Uttar Pradesh substation caused a collapse of the entire northern grid. Nearly a quarter of the population was affected by the blackout which lasted 12 hours. 6 states and the capital were affected and put at a standstill as nearly all services ceased until power came back on.

The loss of power created chaos across the country. Hospitals had to postpone major surgeries and nearly stop operations as there were no generators to keep the lights on. Residents not only lost power but water as well when there was no way to get water from their electric pumps and the treatment stations also were stopped without power.

80 trains were stalled on the tracks for 15 hours because the electric trains blocked the lines and were unable to allow other traffic to pass. Diesel engines had to be brought in to pull the electric trains off the tracks so regular rail traffic could continue. Traffic came to a standstill as traffic lights went out turning roadways into parking lots.

Loss to businesses was estimated at $107 million which caused plenty of angry responses from the people. Residents complained that their tariffs rise every year but the reliability of the power does not improve. Indeed, many of the blackouts are ruled to be caused by transmission problems due to a power system that is largely neglected by the Indian government. With so many issues with the government-provided power, many states and even businesses are looking into privatized methods of getting power, including foreign investment. However, a large portion of India still does not have access to power and privatizing the power system would lead to profits driving the provision of power and not social need.

3. November 1st, 2014 Bangladesh Blackout – 150 million affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

The Bangladesh blackout in November left the entire country without power for 10 hours. At 11:30 am a sub-station in Bheramara, located in the Kushtia district went offline. This caused a disruption in the 400 KV transmission line that was carrying 445 MW of power to Bangladesh from India. With such a substantial loss of power every power plant in the country had to shut down.

Most of the industries in Bangladesh were shut down while a few like hospitals, airports, and other important buildings were able to maintain power through the use of generators. There was a large demand for gas to power the generators and cars were no longer able to get CNG which further increased the need for gas. By sunset, most of the streets were bare as businesses closed. Price gouging on kerosene and candles occurred as no one was sure how long the power would be offline. There was no internet or mobile phone services, television and newspaper media were not able to get information to the people.

That afternoon some of the electricity had been restored but by 4:30 the power plants that had been brought back online tripped again. By 9:00 power started to be restored to some areas and by midnight, power was restored everywhere. Blackouts are not uncommon in Bangladesh and that is why many people in the country keep diesel generators on hand. Many believe that the outages have to do with poor infrastructure and maintenance of the power grid, which could be responsible for the trip that occurred on November 1st.

What is perhaps most surprising about the blackouts in Bangladesh is that a third of the population still has no access to electricity and the country has one of the lowest per capita electricity consumption rates in the world. If Bangladesh is going to continue to develop and increase GDP it will need to upgrade its power system.

4. January 25th, 2015 Pakistan Blackout – 140 Million Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

On January 24th 2015 rebels blew up two transmission towers in the Notal area of Naseerabad in Balochistan in the middle of the night. After the attack, most of the power plants in the country tripped which left only 600 MW of electricity available to meet the 9,000 MW that was needed for the normal operations. This left 80% of the country without access to power and was the worst blackout in Pakistan’s history.

By Sunday night power was restored to Islamabad and Karachi but large portions of the country were still without power, including provincial capitals. Officials were able to bring power back to nearly full capacity the following Monday but it was not enough to quell criticism over the management of the energy crisis. At the time Pakistan had been undergoing a fuel shortage for seven years which was part of the energy problems that the country experienced. Other critics commented that the rebel attack only proved how vulnerable the Pakistan power grid was and the improvements that needed to be made. In 2013 the Pakistan Muslim League-N party ran on a platform of fixing the power grid but by 2015 could not deliver. Debt issues, such as the refusal of government and military institutions to pay electrical bills, and political interference have made upgrading the power grid unlikely in the near future.

The rebel attack on the grid was not something new. It was the third such attack that month as it is the only way that Baluchistan rebels are able to fight for their independence. The large province seeks independence but the abduction and torture of separatists by the government has stopped any outright rebellion. Therefore, the rebels fight for their independence through small, guerrilla attacks on government infrastructure such as the rail lines, gas pipelines and electrical towers.

5. August 18th, 2005 Java-Bali Blackout – 100 Million People Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

At 10:23 am local time the transmission line between Cilegon and Saguling in West Java failed. This caused a chain reaction that caused two units of the Paiton plant in East Java and six units in the Suralaya plant in West Java to fail. The state-owned electric company started that the grid failed and numerous points in both Java and Bali, which caused a shortfall of 2,700 MW which is half the amount needed to power the two countries. Power was restored to most areas by 5:00 pm that same day.

Power outages are a significant problem in Java and Bali when large portions of the population rely on the electric trains for transportation. The high cost of gas has caused many people to be unable to afford cars and without the electric trains they ended up stranded. For those who did have power, the roads became a dangerous place without traffic signals and there were major accidents in the capital. Large hospitals were forced to cease surgical operations and the smaller hospitals were forced to turn away patients altogether. 1,800 officers were called in to deal with minor issues brought on by the failure, and they were needed as the use of candles caused six fires in Jakarta alone.

At the time the Java was experiencing a huge economic upswing which was causing larger demands on power, so the country began an energy conservation program. Knowing that the energy infrastructure is in desperate need of improvements to support the continued growth of the country, leaders have begun looking for foreign investment in the energy sector. However, they were limited because privatization of energy was ruled unconstitutional in 2004. Despite this Indonesia sought to add 22,000 MW of power to its current 23,000 MW in order to give the country the ability to grow.

6. March 11th, 1999 Southern Brazil Blackout – 97 Million People Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

On March 11th, 1999 lighting struck a substation in Bauru, Sao Paulo causing most of the circuits at the station to trip. This caused a chain reaction that tripped most of the power plants in the area including the world’s biggest power plant (at the time) Itaipu. The Southern third of Brazil was left without power as the grid fractured and only some parts of the power grid were able to function. 11 states were affected by the blackout, including the areas of Sao Paulo and Rio. Power was restored to most areas after just four hours.

The blackout caused chaos as officials warned citizens to stay indoors until power was restored for their own safety. But people took to the streets instead causing numerous traffic accidents and some people getting trapped in elevators. Subways were stopped with more than 60,000 people on board. Traffic in the major cities clogged up the streets as traffic signals no longer worked, the tunnels were closed in order to prevent assaults. 1,200 police officers were sent out to the streets in order to prevent looting and try to maintain order.

Many people blamed a power shortage in the country for the blackout as the government had imposed energy rationing in order to combat the power shortages and prevent large-scale blackouts like the ones that California was known for. However, the energy rations had been eased prior to the blackout because the water levels had been rising which increased the power generated by the hydroelectric power plants.

Experts who investigated the blackout found that Brazil’s energy infrastructure was very vulnerable. Not only did it depend on water levels it had no alternative power transmission routes and there was no safety net to prevent blackouts if the water levels dropped or failure occurred at one power plant.

7. November 10th, 2006 Brazil and Paraguay Blackout – 60 Million Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

On November 10th, a severe storm caused three transformers to short circuit and cut the high voltage line that they were on. This caused the Itaipu Dam to shut down for the first time and caused a loss of 14 GW of power. The lines that connected Itaipu to Paraguay’s Yacyreta Dam failed immediately after and plunged the entire country into darkness. For Brazil, 18 out of 26 states lost power including the major cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The power outage only lasted about two hours.

Three days prior to the outage 60 Minutes did a story that suggested that most of the blackouts were caused by hackers. This story was largely ignored by Brazilian officials but it became a major point of interest when Brazil was chosen to host the Olympic Games. Investigations found that the outage was not caused by hackers by more by an infrastructure that was poorly managed. The loss of power during the outage was 28,000 MW which is 45% of the total energy consumption of Brazil at the moment of the blackout.

Since the power outage was so short it called for few emergencies and was largely disregarded in the media. The biggest issue at the time of the blackout was the subway and the roadways which were now completely in the dark and at a standstill. It only became a major concern when it came time to consider the power needs of the Olympics and whether or not Brazil would be able to meet those needs. The investigation also was performed to make sure the infrastructure was secure and that major power outages were not being caused by hackers. Despite the investigation, some media sources continued to report that smaller-scale blackouts were the cause of hackers in the system.

8. April 14th, 2015 Turkey Blackout – 76 Million Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

On April 14th 2015 two power plants, Izmir in Aegean province and Adana Cukurova in the Mediterranean province, failed which caused a 5 – 10% cut in the capacity of the system. Like many other blackouts, this caused a chain reaction which then shut down the entire system. The blackout affected nearly all of Turkey and left 76 million people without power for 10 hours. Cellphones lost connection, traffic was backed up, the metro lines were stopped and several factories that were without their own generators were forced to close down.

The power outage came at a tenuous time for Turkey as they were planning to link up with the European grid system, a future that could be destroyed if it was discovered that Turkey’s power lines were not secure. The government did confirm that they looked into whether or not the power failure was the result of a cyber-attack and ruled that they found no evidence to suggest such a thing occurred. However, a blackout occurring the day before Turkey is set to sign a long-term agreement with the continental European grid is a bit suspect of a cyber-attack. The power outage did not extend into EU countries that Turkey was linked to on the grid but those EU countries did send power back in order to help Turkey get out of the dark.

An investigation discovered that mismanagement of the grid and technical problems held the brunt of the blame for the power failures. This led to the head of the state-run energy grid company resigning from his position. It was determined that the exact time the outage occurred was due to maintenance men working on more than one transmission line at a time. This led to the creation of measures to counter a future nationwide blackout and to ensure that there would be no blackout to disrupt the elections that were to occur the following June.

9. August 14th 2003 Canada and U.S. Blackout – 55 Million People Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

At 4:10 p.m. on August 14th, 2003 power was lost to parts of the Northeast and Midwest United States and Ontario. The blackout affected 45 million people in 8 U.S. states and 10 million people in Ontario. For some, power was restored by 11 p.m. for others it was restored two days later. People in remote areas were without power for almost a week.

The power outage was found to be caused by a series of events that would normally have only caused a minor blackout, but due to a computer bug, there was a substantial malfunction. The alarm system in the control room of the First Energy Corporation experienced a software bug that prevented the alarm from alerting operators of problems in the power flow. Power lines struck trees which caused a race condition in the control software. With power not shut off on the transmission line and the issue not fixed, cascading blackouts occurred throughout the system and left millions in the dark.

The power fluctuations on the grid caused the nuclear power plants to shut down and go into “safe mode” which meant that all nuclear power went offline. Nuclear power plants can only slowly be pulled out of safe mode and therefore all hydroelectric power plants were brought online to bring power at least to the surrounding areas, but these residents were told to limit power usage until the grid could be fully restored. The power failure disrupted train lines, cell phone communication and wired telephone systems were overwhelmed with calls. Commuters in New York were left stranded and many ended up sleeping in doorways or parks when they could not find lodging. 40,000 police officers and every member of the fire department were deployed to the streets of New York to try and maintain peace and order.

10. September 28th, 2003 Italy Blackout – 57 Million Affected

The 10 Biggest Electrical Blackouts in History

The power was stopped at 3:20 in the morning on September 28th. All of Italy, with the exceptions of the islands Sardinia and Elba, and parts of Switzerland. Italy was without power for a total of 12 hours while parts of Switzerland were only without power for 3 hours. Nearly all cities had restored power by morning. Rolling blackouts occurred for 5% of the population over the next two days.

The blackout was caused by storm damage to the power lines that supplied power to Italy from Switzerland. The power line tripped and caused an immediate increase in demand from the power lines bringing power between France and Italy. These power lines tripped and a series of events disrupted the power coming to Italy from France and Switzerland. Control of the grid was lost as lines tripped one after the other and the Swiss company ATEL confirmed that the power line bringing power to Italy was out for several hours.

The blackout occurred at a very inopportune time as the night of September 27th is the annual overnight celebration of the Nuit Blanche in Rome which meant that even though the blackout occurred at 3:00 a.m. many people were still out on the streets and using public transportation. The blackout forced the carnival to end early and hundreds of people were trapped in the underground trains. With severe storms, people were left to sleep in train stations and under awnings. All flights were canceled and an additional 30,000 people were stranded on trains.

The 2003 Italy blackout was seen as a failure of interdependent networks and it became the focus of study to determine ways to build networks that were not so interconnected. Several nodes in the network of the power stations failed and caused an internet failure which then caused more power stations to fail, one thing triggered another and proved the vulnerability in modern power grids.

Some Sources For Further Reading:

Medium – Indian Blackouts of July 2012: What Happened and Why?

The Guardian – India blackouts leave 700 million without power

IEEE Spectrum – Northern India Recovering from Huge Blackout

BBC News – Power restored after huge Indian power cut

The New York Time Magazine – Electricity Returns to Bangladesh After Power Failure

UPI – 140 million left without power in Pakistan

The New York Time Magazine – Wide Power Failure Strikes Southern Brazil

The Guardian – Brazilian power cut leaves 60 million in the dark

Energy.Gov – August 2003 Blackout

Scientific America – The 2003 Northeast Blackout

CNN – Italy recovering from big blackout