Hilary Tuttle


September 1, 2013


In the United States alone, blackouts cost an estimated $80 billion to $188 billion every year, according to Dr. Massoud Amin, director of the Technology Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota. Heat waves and increased air conditioning use can stress the power grid and storms can down lines, making summer seem like prime blackout season. But an increasing number of factors, from extreme weather to human error, can leave businesses and homes vulnerable to blackouts year-round.

Advances in modern technology have not necessarily translated into more stable electrical infrastructure—indeed, in some cases, technological advances have actually contributed to sizable power outages in the last decade. Consolidating and connecting power grids may improve some services, but these moves also open up new sources of risk.
Check out some of these more atypical power outage stories below, and start thinking about how to better mitigate the risk of blackouts so you’re covered, rain or shine.

Cruise Control (2006)
On Nov. 4, 2006, the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship tried to sail down the Ems River out of Papenberg, Germany, under a local power line crossing. While the wires were mounted to 275-foot pylons to allow most boats to pass beneath, the cruise ship was too close and workers at electricity company E. ON had to switch off the line. The temporary disconnection caused the European transmission grid to split into three independent parts for a short period before triggering a massive cascading breakdown felt across the continent. More than 15 million households were left without power, primarily in parts of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Austria. Power grids in Belgium, the Netherlands and Croatia were also strained by the outage, and experienced minor local outages. Though power was quickly restored, a senior director for French power company RTE admitted, “We weren’t very far from a European blackout.”

Cyberattack or Soot? (2007)
Three million people in Brazil’s Espirito Santo region were plunged into darkness in September 2007. Subway trains suddenly stopped, traffic lights went black, and the Itaipu dam—the world’s second-largest producer of hydroelectric power—shut down. While the effects were clear, the cause of the massive power outage remains a subject to debate. CBS News program 60 Minutes reported that many intelligence sources blamed hackers for a cyberattack on Brazil’s electrical grid. A cyberattack also caused a smaller 2005 blackout in Rio de Janiero, some of their sources claimed. Internal review by the Brazilian electrical company Furnas Centrais Elétricas cited the blackout’s cause as soot-lined insulators that were not cleaned. Burning fields nearby deposited soot and dust, and a lack of rain in the region led to higher concentrations of pollutants on critical pieces of equipment, the company said.

Off the Grid (2008)
The entire island of Zanzibar subsisted off the electrical grid for a month when a power surge damaged the submarine interconnector cable that links the island to the Tanzanian mainland. Residents had to rely entirely on alternative methods to generate electricity, primarily turning to diesel generators. Lost work, the expense of maintaining generators and impeded tourism resulted in a severe hit for the local economy, particularly hammering small businesses. The broken cable was initially predicted to last 25 years, yet it had been serving as the island’s main electrical source for more than 35 years at the time of the blackout. Citizens criticized Zanzibar’s autonomous government for the nation’s dependence on power from Tanzania—outrage that only grew when the cable failed again in 2009, leading to an unprecedented three months without electricity or the power to pump water.

Vandalism in London (2009)
In July 2009, vandals near London set a fire near a cable installation, causing failure of a cable and four circuit boards. Over 100,000 homes and businesses lost power in South East London and Kent, U.K., with half of residents experiencing blackouts for four days while others had limited power in three-hour increments. In the largest deployment of mobile generators in London’s history, EDF Energy brought in more than 70 devices from across the United Kingdom, restoring power to more vulnerable locations like local care homes.

Meet the Derecho (2012)
In June 2012, many Americans learned about a new severe weather phenomenon to fret over: the derecho. A derecho is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that typically accompanies a band of severe thunderstorms. These winds can exceed the strength of a hurricane or tornado and the resulting wind damage can extend for hundreds of miles. The 2012 derecho stretched from Illinois to New Jersey, killing 28, and leaving 4 million people without power. The storm caused an estimated $2.9 billion in damages and prompted state of emergency declarations in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. Infrastructure damage ranged from overcrowded hospitals and downed power lines to a complete Amtrak shutdown in the Mid-Atlantic region and a temporary knockout of the Amazon Cloud, which supports a range of services like Netflix and Instagram. As the conditions associated with heat waves are conducive to derechos, meteorologists speculate we may see more of these storms as summers get hotter.

Hilary Tuttle is managing editor of Risk Management.