2 minutes reading time (459 words)

Trees, Squirrels, and the Biggest Blackout in U.S. History

Can one small glitch in the U.S. power grid create a domino effect causing cascading darkness throughout the country? The 2003 Northeast Blackout, the largest power failure in U.S. history, almost did--affecting 50 million people for two days, costing $6 billion and six deaths.

And it all started with a tree.

a critter running across a power line between trees

Grids to Substations

There are three interconnected power grids that power the entire lower 48 states:

  • The Western grid powers the states west of the Rockies. It is under federal domain.
  • The Eastern grid powers the states east of the Rocky Mountains and part of the Texas panhandle. It is under federal domain.
  • The rest of Texas has its own grid run by the state's Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). It is under state domain.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration(EIA), each grid works independently, transferring power as needed. So why did the 2003 Northeast blackout happen?

In power-grid-speak, it was an equipment failure known as a "fault" that caused it. It all started with an overgrown tree brushing against a high-voltage line in Ohio. It didn't set off an alarm like it usually would. This quickly cascaded to two computer/software errors that led to the blackout. In other words, grid operators had no awareness of any situation that needed remedied.

The usual efficiency of the Eastern U.S. electrical power grid failed. That's the big picture. But that is just what the grid is--a framework. That framework breaks down further into hydroelectric or coal-powered plants that feed our homes and businesses by way of substations and power lines.

It's those substations that are arguably the most vulnerable. It doesn't take more than a determined but ill-fated squirrel climbing across trees, utility poles, and electrical lines and gnawing the wires to cause an outage in an entire neighborhood.

Substations and Critters

Is it easier to get power back up in New York City as opposed to a town like Milford, Indiana, a country town of around 1,500 people? Not necessarily. A lot depends on aging infrastructure. Both rural and city substations are often built around neighborhoods with trees and wildlife. Aging substations with older transformers and power lines not retrofitted with power grid monitoring upgrades may take longer to get up-and-running, whether it's in a New York City borough or in Small Town, U.S.A.

Most of the time it's rodents like squirrels that cause power outages. Using Critter Guard’s Line Guard and Pole Guard can help prevent squirrels and other rodents from gnawing through power lines or damaging transformers.

Mitigating animal-instigated power outages are what we're all about. Whether you run a substation or are a homeowner tired of chewed and damaged wires, contact us to help you avoid power outages that can cascade into great blackouts.

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