Blackout Hits Ontario and Seven US States | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Blackout Hits Ontario and Seven US States

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 25, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

IT TOOK just nine seconds to turn the clock back a century. A voltage fluctuation in some Ohio transmission lines. Then, at 4:11 p.m. n a muggy August Thursday, a faster-than-you-can-blink reversal in the flow of current, suddenly sucking away a city's worth of power from the eastern half of the continent.

Blackout Hits Ontario and Seven US States

IT TOOK just nine seconds to turn the clock back a century. A voltage fluctuation in some Ohio transmission lines. Then, at 4:11 p.m. on a muggy August Thursday, a faster-than-you-can-blink reversal in the flow of current, suddenly sucking away a city's worth of power from the eastern half of the continent. Computerized safety systems kicked in and 100 generating stations across Ontario and seven U.S. states were knocked off-line like tumbling dominoes. The lights went out, air conditioners stopped humming, television and radio stations fell silent, subways, streetcars, and elevators shuddered to a halt. Fifty million people looked at their watches, flipped suddenly useless power switches, and began a long, hot wait for someone to restore the natural order.

Not a surprise, exactly. We've all experienced blackouts before. And in power-starved Ontario, where 10 million citizens found themselves unplugged, the experts had long been predicting summer shortages. But as the minutes ticked by and the scope of the problem became clear - no electricity from Ottawa to Windsor, major American cities like New York, Detroit and Cleveland also at a standstill - there was a kernel of dread. In Manhattan, with the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks looming, that fear quickly came to the surface. "The first thing I thought was, 'Oh my God, this is another terrorist attack,' " says Henry Flesh, who works in the 30th-floor offices of a large publishing company. "We looked out on the streets, saw a lot of people outside, and couldn't figure out what was going on. We didn't have a radio with batteries, and some people got pretty scared. Some were joking and I was trying to joke, too, but underneath it all I thought, 'Geez, we could be about to be blown up in a few minutes.' "

In Toronto, thousands found themselves trapped in elevators and the city's subway. It took fire and transit officials hours to free them all. "The car became pretty sweaty, and after about 20 minutes it got really hot and very hard to breathe. There were people who were running back and forth between the cars - I think they might have been claustrophobic," says Adam Durbin, a 22-year-old student, who was heading home when the blackout hit. "I just wanted to get the hell off the train. Nobody on board was really talking about what had happened because nobody knew anything. We were all just concentrating on not passing out because it was so hot down there."

Above the surface, the scene was no less chaotic. Sidewalks overflowed with transit users forced to take to shank's pony. With all of the city's 1,773 traffic lights out of service, and streetcars stopped dead in the tracks, vehicles gridlocked within minutes, despite the best efforts of good Samaritan citizens directing traffic. TTC worker Malcolm MacPherson donned a reflective vest and leapt into action at one busy intersection. "Amazingly, the drivers were obeying me," he says. "They'd beep their horns and some of them handed me bottles of water."

As the afternoon turned to evening, emergency officials across the blackout zone braced for the worst, but were faced with remarkably few problems. There were crimes of opportunity - small-scale larceny in parts of Brooklyn, N.Y., a jewellery store robbery on Ottawa's Sparks Street, just 30 minutes after the power went off, 23 cases of looting in the capital, and 208 break-and-enters in Toronto, about six times the usual nightly total - but nothing compared to infamous blackouts past. In Detroit, officials ordered an 11 p.m. curfew for teenagers and delivered blunt warnings of hefty jail terms for troublemakers: "Before you pick up a brick and throw it, before you tip over a car, before you take a TV, you better ask yourself, is this worth 10 years of my life?" the local prosecutor told a news conference. But there were few arrests. The biggest challenge came in Cleveland, where 1.5 million people were left without drinking water when backup power went down at local treatment plants. The National Guard was quickly pressed into service to distribute more that 6.3 million litres to thirsty residents.

Among the most affected were travellers. The blackouts closed or partially shut down 12 major airports in Canada and the United States. Domestic flights were cancelled, and incoming international planes diverted. Toronto's Pearson International not only had to contend with power outages, but the complete collapse of Air Canada's computerized control centre. The struggling airline ended up cancelling more than 500 flights, leaving thousands stranded in terminals around the world. Rick and Helen Bailey, travelling home to Edmonton after visiting family in St. John's, Nfld., were stuck at Pearson for more than 48 hours. "We were on a flight that was supposed to leave Newfoundland at 9 a.m., but the plane blew a hydraulic part so they flew a new one in," says Rick. The couple got to Toronto just as the lights went out. Their connecting flight was cancelled, and like thousands of others, they were left to fend for themselves. "We said what about hotels - they told us we're on our own." The Baileys bedded down in the terminal. "I didn't even want to guess where our suitcases were," says Rick.

Hospital patients, people with debilitating illnesses and the disabled also faced more discomfort than most, but health institutions rose - occasionally heroically - to the challenge. In Hamilton, city employees worked frantically through the first hours of the crisis to route emergency power to the Regional Cancer Centre, so that two leukemia patients could complete radiation treatments before life-saving stem cell transplants.

But mostly, people just made do. In many affected communities a carnival atmosphere took over. People made the rounds of neighbours to chat, took to backyards to barbecue and admire the stars, or found refuge in candlelit bars and restaurants. Toronto's Brent Turnbull and his fiancée, Kelly Jones, filled a spill-proof camping bottle with wine, hopped on their bikes and cycled around the city. On the journey they discovered an impromptu picnic party with people cooking dinner on propane camping stoves in a park, and an outdoor dance in an alley of a downtown street, where a DJ was spinning records with the aid of a small generator. "You could see the top of the CN Tower and it was so amazing - the moon was on the left and Mars was on the right," says Turnbull, 34. "When the street lights came on after a few hours, a huge cheer went up and then there was this pregnant pause, and people started saying 'Turn them back off!' The magic was gone. But I think that's what we'll call it: the perfect night."

By late Friday night, most American cities had fully restored power, and were already returning to normal - major-league baseball and NFL exhibition games went ahead as scheduled in Cleveland - leaving many Ontarians to wonder why they were still in the dark. In Toronto, where the power situation remained precarious throughout the weekend, and the venerable Canadian National Exhibition was forced to postpone its opening, Premier Ernie EVES warned of rolling blackouts and more trouble ahead. "We don't have an abundance of power," he said. "So I encourage industry and commercial and office facilities not to use power you don't need to use." The greatest threat, however, might be to Eves and his Tory government, who must call an election in the coming months. Opposition parties are already trying to make them wear the blame for the blackout, just the latest crisis to befall the province's crumbling and deeply indebted electricity system.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and U.S. President George W. Bush have already pledged to set up a joint task force to probe the cause of the blackout and the security of North America's highly interconnected POWER grid. "You can't blame anyone. It happened," Chrétien said, perhaps wishfully. "Fifty million people have been involved in this problem, and what is great is the people have kept their calm and accepted fate very graciously."

Critics, however, are already pointing to government policies in both the United States and Canada that have led to less money being spent on refurbishing outdated power infrastructure. "We're a superpower with a Third World grid. We need a new grid," said former U.S. energy secretary Bill Richardson, now the governor of New Mexico. Some observers are suggesting that Ontario and the affected states need to radically rethink their systems, given the failure of multiple safety measures that were supposed to keep the lights on, and go back to smaller generating stations that service each local area. After all, this isn't the first time such widespread failures have blacked out eastern North America. There is even an international body - the North American Electric Reliability Council - charged with preventing such events. Its president, Michehl R. Gent, said he is as confused as everyone else. "If we've designed the system for this not to happen, how did it happen?" he told reporters. "I can't answer that question. I'm embarrassed." Honest, but not exactly the illuminating response 50 million were hoping for.

The Downside of Interconnection

Much of the electricity grid desperately needs updating to handle enormous and expanding energy needs
THINK BLACK HOLE, sucking in whatever's within its grasp. The biggest blackout the continent has ever seen may have had its beginnings between 3 and 4 p.m. last Thursday. That's when several transmission lines near Cleveland lost their power, creating a demand from customers along those lines. That drew in electricity in surges from ever-expanding sectors of the interconnected North American power grid. As sector after sector in turn saw their supply suddenly fall short of demand on a hot, air-conditioned summer afternoon, they sucked in power from the next sector. The rolling imbalance overwhelmed transmission services along the grid and at 4:11, the shutdown hit. As sectors automatically switched off to protect themselves from potentially damaging surges, the power died across most of Ontario and seven states, the lights went out - and the rumours flew.

Was it terrorism? A burning generator in Manhattan? Fire at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant? A lightning strike on a generator in the Niagara region? Clearly, proclaimed American commentators and politicians, something had gone wrong in Canada. Not here, Canadian government and electricity industry leaders countered, it had to be something in the States - if not Manhattan, maybe Ohio?

Terrorism was quickly ruled out, but the big question mark remained. As both sides announced a joint task force to determine the blackout's cause, suspicions began to focus on what's known as the Lake Erie loop: transmission lines carrying power around that lake in both countries. That would jibe with the Cleveland theory. But whatever the cause, one thing was clear: a grid system that allows jurisdictions to import power from others when they're short, and share some when they're flush, can also implode when it's overloaded.

Ontario's electricity grid - with its 28,000 km of high-voltage lines - is interconnected with grids covering vast parts of the U.S. and Canada east of the Rockies. Only Texas and Quebec have fully buffered their systems, rendering them immune to potentially disabling surges. Quebec has spent billions over the past decade to achieve electricity self-reliance. Which highlights the dilemma throughout the rest of the antiquated grid - much of it desperately needs updating to handle enormous and expanding energy needs. The price tag: at least $50 billion, possibly much worse.

By Saturday, with New York City already back to normal, Toronto still struggled to get electricity back to some pockets. As Ontario's opposition parties crowed that they've seen something like this coming for years, the Tory government had some deciding to do. It's a critical issue - Ontario has become a regular importer of electricity, so unless its citizens suddenly develop an uncharacteristic taste for conservation, the grid system has to work. But an election has to be called soon. Is this when a government admits things aren't working, and commits the billions it'll take to ensure that the province's lights stay on?


Power politics and the Ontario Conservatives

Ernie Eves seems to have the worst political luck
WHERE WERE YOU when the lights went out? Ontario Premier Ernie Eves was on his way to his own nomination meeting in picturesque Caledon East, the prelude to an election call - and now likely a victory - that seems always to be eluding his grasp. Taking heat for not living up to the Rudy Giuliani standard of immediate crisis management, the premier may yet be forgiven for trying to get all his facts straight before reaching out to Ontarians four hours after the massive outage. After all, Ottawa did itself no international favours when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Defence Minister John McCallum, the man in charge of emergency preparedness, pointed fingers at all sorts of imaginary U.S. targets. (Even as U.S. figures were pointing northward.)

Still, for hard-luck Ernie, Thursday's big blackout was the political equivalent of being stuck in an elevator nowhere near an accommodating floor. But that's what you get for playing loose with a system that needs more than crossed fingers to keep the juice flowing.

When Eves, a former finance minister, took over Mike Harris's ideologically bumptious Tory government in the spring of 2002, he also inherited its plan to privatize the power system, the once almighty ONTARIO HYDRO. But when electricity prices spiked a year ago, Eves did an about-face. He iced privatization plans and capped rates at their old levels (well below rising market cost) for homeowners and small businesses. And that had three consequences: it turned off investors who wanted to start private utilities; it dug a huge hole in provincial finances to account for ongoing subsidies; and it gave Eves political ownership of a stultified electrical grid (with two large reactors out of commission) that had grown overly dependent on imported power.

All summer, as Conservative operatives tested the waters for an election call, they prayed for damp, cool weather so as not to create the rolling California-style brownouts that might roil bedrock voters. The darndest thing was: they almost made it.

In many ways, Ernie Eves is a nice stentorian fellow from middle Ontario who seems to have the worst political luck, or judgment, of any leader in recent memory. A planned election call in the spring, on the heels of a purportedly balanced budget, was derailed over the controversy of delivering the budget away from the legislature. A summer window was shut when a second minister went down in a blaze of personal overspending. And now, as the premier was contemplating the David Peterson feint - call the vote in the dog days of August so voters are spared tuning in until after Labour Day - he was hit by an imposing darkness. With rolling electricity-sharing brownouts now official Ontario policy for weeks to come, Eves would appear to have little choice but to head back to Queen's Park for a fall session. It's not been a particularly hospitable environment. But if you're going to redesign the province's backbone power system, it is the place to start.


Memories of a long, cold electricity outage

Remembering the ice storm of 1998
THERE IS ONE THING worse than sweating, power-less, in the dark, as most Quebecers know, and it is freezing in the dark. Here, we tend to lose power in the middle of winter, when the nights last 16 hours, and the temperature dips into the flash-freeze zone. Deciding to sleep overnight on the sidewalk in such conditions - as many New Yorkers did last Thursday night - could be the last decision you'd ever make.

Bad as the great blackout was, chances are the memories of the inconvenience will soon fade away. But if you lived through the ICE STORMS of January 1998, it is impossible to forget them. The strange, motionless beauty of frost-covered tree limbs on empty streets; the King Kongesque vision of huge pylons toppled over. Men died falling off roofs they were trying to de-ice to save their houses from collapse, old folks died of cold or carbon monoxide poisoning; families, whole towns, camped in school gyms for weeks on end. Three million people in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys went without power, some for as long as 33 days; 30 deaths were blamed on the storm.

Downtown Montreal was cordoned off, the towers covered with ice that fell in large slabs and landed with a crash, breaking the silence in the streets. Police cruisers, idle with lights flashing, sat at every intersection. At the time I was the executive producer of Global Quebec, which had gone on the air just weeks before, and everyone was working day and night to keep up with the story of a lifetime - oblivious to the fact that our market had vanished. Virtually no one in our viewing area could watch TV. But life had stopped making any sense.

So, Montreal had power while Toronto's luck failed last week - and, yes, some people here were betting on the moment when Mayor Mel Lastman would call in the army, for ice cubes and cold pop. Quebec was spared because, as Premier Jean Charest was quick to point out, it has been there before. Following major blackouts in the 1980s and then the traumatic ice storms of 1998, HYDRO-QUÉBEC pumped $3 billion into upgrading its power grid. We are self-sufficient, and our system has the equivalent of big, big fuses that protect us from whatever aberration hampers our neighbours' antiquated, overworked systems.

Charest's matter-of-fact announcement that our system is better than their systems did not send Quebec off on a bombastic, nationalist boasting spree - proof once more that the Parti Québécois era is indeed over. Reporters and the public were just befuddled to learn that, for once, our government had made the right decision and done the right thing with our money. As a result, Quebec was able to move 50 emergency generators into Ontario early Friday, and divert 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Ontario and New York state - hoping the neighbours will remember these gestures next time we freeze alone in the dark.

BENOIT AUBIN in Montreal

Unplugged: The Numbers

  • 9 seconds: Time it took for the cascade to collapse the grid
  • People affected: 50 million
  • 8: Jurisdictions affected (Ontario and seven states)
  • Area affected by blackout: 2,400 sq. km
  • Kilometres of high-voltage lines in North America: one million
  • Number of major points where electricity sectors link: 37
  • 10,000: Number of power plants in North America
  • Number shut down in blackout: 100
  • 22: Number of nuclear power plants shut down
  • Average age of the North American power grid: 50-60 years
  • Rank, in terms of size, of last week's blackout: ONE
  • Second largest: 1965 northeast blackout
  • Size of last week's power swing (mismatch between energy supply and demand): 5,000 megawatts
  • Size of power swing of 1965 blackout: 800 megawatts
  • Percentage increase in demand for power in the U.S. over the last decade: 30
  • Increase in U.S. capacity: 15 per cent
  • Estimated cost of modernizing the North American power grid: up to $100 billion
  • Percentage of its power supply Ontario imports: nearly 15
  • 200+: Number of major industries in Ontario asked to shut down temporarily
  • 4-6 hours: Time a refrigerator without power can keep food cool
  • According to Health Canada, length of time after which unrefrigerated, perishable foods should be thrown out 2 hours

Maclean's August 25, 2003