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The blackout of 2003 resulted in dramatic changes to managing the electric grid

Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio's Rebecca Williams working the phones in the dark during the 2003 blackout.

Many of us who are old enough can remember where we were when the lights went out, seemingly everywhere at once, in the afternoon hours of August 14, 2003.

Michigan Radio staff members still tell their own stories about that day and the subsequent hours afterwards — "Hey, remember when we had to go buy a generator because we didn't have one back then?" "Remember Mark Brush jumping in his car to find a gas station that had power, to purchase gasoline to run the generator?"

Oh, and it was hot. Hot outside, even hotter inside the station, and with almost nothing to eat because the stores were all closed. But the station went back on the air within a few hours.

The reasons for the massive blackout, which affected a large swath of Michigan and Ontario, along with Ohio and many other Midwest and Northeastern states, were multiple.

Tim Gallagher is president of ReliabilityFirst, one of six federally-recognized organizations created in the wake of the blackout, to oversee the functioning of the high-voltage transmission system.

He compared the situation that caused the blackout to stacking a number of slices of Swiss cheese on top of each other. Very rarely will three holes all line up perfectly in this analogy, so you can see all the way through the cheese — but on August 14, one thing after another stacked up like that.

"A number of things happened almost simultaneously that led to the fall downs," Gallagher explained. "The investigations afterwards found there were three things that contributed to it. One was insufficient tree trimming, because there were trees that contacted transmission lines and instigated some outages. Then there was deficient training — there are special things you have to do in emergency situations when you're operating the power system, and we found some of the training was lacking. And the last was tools — there are a lot of tools that we use for automation and for visibility and some of those tools did not function properly."

Gallagher said there have been thousands of improvements made across the power system since the blackout to make sure that the industry is doing everything it can to take risk off the table.

Could it happen again?

"We can't legislate blackouts away, we can't draw geographical boundaries around electrons; they follow the laws of physics," he said. "And this is a massive, super-complicated machine and humans are involved in every aspect of it. So to say that there will never be a blackout ever, I don't think we can say that. But I can say this with confidence: we are working every day — every day — to reduce the likelihood of that happening, whether it's dealing with things that are well-known risks to the system or whether it's taking on the challenges of new things as they come to us as the grid evolves."

One of those new challenges is the threat of cyber attacks. Another is the challenge of keeping electricity reliable as more and more of it comes from renewable sources like wind and solar.

Simon Whitelocke is president of ITC Michigan, the company that controls the high voltage transmission system for most of lower Michigan.

"We have to continue to invest in the regional grid," he said, "making sure that we have connections between the regions, between states, to be able to handle when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing here, so we can tap into our neighbors and vice versa."

Whitelocke said ITC Michigan is among the most reliable high-voltage system operators in the nation.

That's opposed to the electric distribution system, which is managed by utility companies.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.