How many blackouts have occurred in the U.S. over the last decade or two?
March 31, 2007 4:50 PM   Subscribe

How many blackouts have occurred in different regions of the U.S. over the last decade or two? How many houses were affected? You get bonus points if you can find information about what caused the blackouts.

My team and I are creating a mock business plan for a college class. We are trying to find a target market for standby electric generators. Our hypothesis is that people affected most often by blackouts would be most likely to buy a standby generator.

Thank you for you help!
posted by speedoavenger to Science & Nature (21 answers total)
This data will come from NERC .
posted by milkrate at 5:03 PM on March 31, 2007

August of 2003 (the 14th or 15th), most of New England and the upper midwest went down. The cause was a cascading failure, initially started because one particular transmission line was overloaded and its breakers blew. The deeper cause was that the system was too close to capacity and became fragile. (If it hadn't been that transmission line, something else would probably have done it.)

In 2001, California had rolling blackouts which were caused nominally by inadequate generation capacity, but on a deeper level by manipulation of the electricity market. (By Enron. Remember them?)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:10 PM on March 31, 2007

In terms of your project, there isn't anywhere in North America where blackouts have happened often enough for people to become defensive about them and to worry about them in future. Generally speaking, the North American power grid runs extremely well and people take electric power for granted.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:15 PM on March 31, 2007

I'm wrong. There have been blackouts in Florida nearly every year, and sometimes two or three times per year, as a result of hurricanes.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:43 PM on March 31, 2007

Thanks Steven for the info about Florida. Do you know where I can find more information about the specifics in Florida?
posted by speedoavenger at 5:58 PM on March 31, 2007

There have been blackouts in Florida nearly every year, and sometimes two or three times per year, as a result of hurricanes.

All of us along the Gulf Coast think about it. And the blackouts happen from time to time just from the heavy storms that fly through here (SE Texas, in my case) not just because of hurricanes. We've had brief blackouts twice since we moved to our new house last month.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:00 PM on March 31, 2007

There was a massive blackout in Western Washington (state) last year. Some people only lost power for two days, others for as many as two weeks. The cause was an ice storm followed quickly by high winds. Several dozen people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, when they tried to BBQ inside their apartments.

In Redmond, where I live now, we've had numerous multi-hour blackouts in the last year. Urban Seattle had very reliable power when I lived there, with no blackouts that I can recall from '99 to '04.

Southern California has annual minor blackouts yearly, and major blackouts every few years.

In most of the US, you can expect close to two to three nines of power uptime annually. Four nines off the grid is very unlikely. One nine could be normal in some places.

There are a few big companies in the standby generation business. They mostly target commercial users of power that need more nines of reliability, like telecom and medical facilities.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:11 PM on March 31, 2007

I would concur with SCDB that places that are often hit by natural disasters (Florida for hurricanes, maybe Tornado Alley for tornadoes) would probably get blackouts more often than the average location.

Just the other night we had about 7 tornadoes around the Texas Panhandle, and our power went out for about an hour. I would have loved to have had a generator--I hardly survived without my evening of MeFi:)
posted by DMan at 6:13 PM on March 31, 2007

Our hypothesis is that people affected most often by blackouts would be most likely to buy a standby generator.

You need to consider how much that power is needed. In a relatively temperate climate like the Pacific Northwest, power outages aren't usually a big deal. It doesn't get much below freezing here, so if you only have electric heat, you can survive for a day or two with a warm sleeping bag. Similarly, in the summer, it isn't usually hot enough to need A/C at home.

Industrial users of electricity are a different story. If your business depends on power, an outage will cost you money. When you do your business analysis, you need to consider the cost per unit time of outages and multiply that by the average outage duration for a given industry in a given region. That will tell you which customers to target.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:16 PM on March 31, 2007

On Aug.14 2003, the Northeast Blackout

affected an estimated 10 million people in the province of Ontario (about one-third of the population of Canada), and 40 million people in eight U.S. states (about one-seventh of the population of the U.S.). Outage-related financial losses were estimated at $6 billion USD ($6.8 billion CDN).

Two weeks later, on Aug 28 a blackout disrupted London:

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said at least 250,000 people were affected and said the situation showed the need for a serious look at the National Grid and why power went down for so long.

"We've never had this catastrophic failure before and we clearly can't have it again," he said.

About three weeks after that, on Sept. 23, Denmark and Sweden were hit:

The Danish capital, Copenhagen, and parts of Sweden have been hit by massive power cuts.

Around four million homes and businesses lost supplies at around 1240 local time (1040GMT). Engineers restored most power by late afternoon, but the exact cause of the cuts remained unclear.

Less than a week later, on Sept. 28, 2003, there was a problem in Italy:

Italy has been hit by a massive power cut - and many parts remain without electricity hours after the unprecedented blackout.

Only the island of Sardinia escaped the power cut, which struck at about 0330 (0130GMT) on Sunday morning.

Merely a coincidence that the US, Great Britain, Denmark and Italy were the most prominent members of the Coalition of the Willing?

Quite possibly, but I think it at least ought to cast some doubt on the 'accident' explanation of the Northeast Blackout, and reinforces SCDB's point that power blackouts in the US, particularly if the most memorable one was not unintentional, may not be common enough to be a basis for a business.
posted by jamjam at 6:24 PM on March 31, 2007

Jamjam, he's doing a school project, not really starting a business. And I do not believe that big blackouts are caused by The Conspiracy -- except the California ones, which provably were. (And people went to jail because of it.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:46 PM on March 31, 2007

You can almost certainly get state-level data from your state's public utility commission.

(I'm not sure why you need real data for a mock business plan ... are you actually going to survey people? If so, ask them how many blackouts they've experienced.)
posted by dhartung at 7:35 PM on March 31, 2007

1. Would any of the you mefites ever consider buying a home standby generator that could power most of your appliances and electronics?

2. How much would you be willing to pay?

3. Where do you live?

4. How many blackouts have you experienced in the last couple years?
posted by speedoavenger at 8:03 PM on March 31, 2007

One of the problems with buying a generator for the home is that it is a giant pain in the ass. While you could go with the monster setup they just showed on "Ask This Old House", natural gas power, wired into the breaker panel, auto start and changeover, the approximate cost of $8000 is a bit high considering the rarity of outages in most areas.

Or you could go with the $599 Home Depot unit. Big savings, but dragging the unit out of the garage and running the extension cord in to whatever you want to power sucks, especially since the outage probably will happen during a storm. The run time on these is only about 4 hours, which is probably OK since chances are the power will come back while you're setting the darn thing up.

So unless you have critical life support or business needs, I don't see the need for home units.
posted by Marky at 8:23 PM on March 31, 2007

There isn't anywhere in North America where blackouts have happened often enough for people to become defensive about them and to worry about them in future.

Yeah, which is why half the houses in the Vermont village where I share a ski house have standby generators permanently installed.

Snarkiness aside, my experience in the exurban and rural Northeastern US is that houses are vulnerable to multiple-hour-to-multiple-day blackouts, especially during storm season, when ice, wind and trees conspire to pull our mostly-overhead power lines down. These incidents tend to affect thousands of customers. Our poles are also vulnerable to being hit by cars, though those problems tend to get fixed pretty quickly. I'd say my Dad, in northern Westchester County, NY loses power at least every other year, for 6-36 hours after a major weather event.

The bad news for your business plan is that he's determined it's much cheaper to check into a hotel when this happens (as the events tend to be pretty localized) than spring for backup power.
posted by Opposite George at 9:15 PM on March 31, 2007

Last month in the midwest, we had snow/ice/wind related blackouts that lasted from a few hours to a couple weeks in some remote areas. Rural homes were especially hard hit by the outage. They were low priorities for the power companies due to the amount of time needed to bring each individual customer back online. In town they can supply whole blocks with power by repairing a few hundred yards worth of line, not so in the boonies. The rural folks have the added problem of well water, which unlike city water takes some form of power to get it out of the ground. This resulted in some dehydrated livestock, though I didn't hear of any deaths this time. I did hear of farmers sharing generators to get their watering basins full (as well as hauling in water from fire departments).
posted by jaysus chris at 11:32 PM on March 31, 2007

I grew up in the rural midwest, and the power went out all the time when there was bad weather, but often for just a few minutes, and rarely more than a couple hours. This happened many times per year, but I can't imagine needing a generator for short outages. You just get your flashlight ready when you first hear thunder, and then you're good to go.

I think your business plan might be more effective if you focus on duration rather than frequency.
posted by clarissajoy at 7:48 AM on April 1, 2007

We lose power occasionally, mostly for periods ranging from a few minutes up to an hour or so. The causes range from car accidents (hitting and downing a pole somewhere) to electrical storms to high summer usage.

Every couple of years, we might lose power for the better part of a day (usually during the one winter ice storm we get every year now) A couple of years ago, our area of the state lost power for a couple of days (some areas stayed dark for a week)

Still, the outages are so varied (and mostly minor) I can't justify purchasing a generator just in-case.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:43 AM on April 1, 2007

Quick answers to your questions: The home standby generators are too expensive for our needs. We had a $600 Home Depot generator when we lived in Galveston. We used it when we returned home after the Rita evacuation when the power was still out. We experienced 5 to 10 other minor blackouts while living in G-Town over 4 years.

Note also, today's paper says that 58,000 customers lost power yesterday due to a heavy storm with strong straight-line winds near Houston. Perhaps those in high-income brackets would be more likely to consider buying a standby generator.
posted by Robert Angelo at 10:18 AM on April 1, 2007

I would love to have a wired in, plumbed in, natural gas fueled generator. For one thing, if enough people had them, it would curb the monopoly pricing power of either utility, which the last six years have taught us we cannot rely upon government regulators to do, no matter what laws we pass.

But if I were marketing such a thing, I would be more likely to pitch it in terms of the sharp increase in extreme weather events, which cause power problems in both directions, increasing demand to the brownout point, and downing lines all over the place. Global warming is driving the extreme weather, and no one knows how bad it's really going to be, but fear of it seems certain to mount rapidly for a number of years, and everyone is likely to want something to make themselves feel protected, even if the solution is not very rational.
posted by jamjam at 3:24 PM on April 1, 2007

I'm not in the U.S. but I get two or three blackouts of a few minutes every year. When I lived in a smaller town, I'd get half a dozen, and some of them would last a few hours.

I'm sure the power companies collect this information, but I can't guarantee they will share it.
posted by RobotHero at 6:28 PM on April 1, 2007

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