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Blackouts happen, but no two are the same

The only thing major blackouts have in common is that customers suffer.

CLEVELAND — Funny thing about electricity: We all need it, but nobody understands it.

Nearly every facet of our life relies upon power that we as consumer have no control over. Moving at about 1,000 miles per second, electricity moves from power plants through high voltage transmission lines that feed a network of stations that then distribute it to individual customers.

Operators in control rooms across the country are constantly monitoring the flow to ensure it stays balanced. If there is a service interruption or fault, an operator can redirect power around the problem area quickly to keep the system online.

The grid is more than just interconnected power lines. The grid is interconnected power companies, states and even countries that buy and sell electricity within the grid’s market. The contiguous United States relies on 3 electrical system grids, with Ohio in the huge Eastern Interconnection grid that also stretches into Canada.

Credit: WKYC
US Power Grids

The electricity that is produced, bought and sold in the grid stays in the grid and outside electricity can’t be brought in. This is why Texas is in a tough spot right now because about 75% of the state is in the relatively small grid known as ERCOT, or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The extreme cold froze up as much as 50% of their electrical production, actually icing up natural gas and coal fired power plants as well as wind turbines. Even the solar panels were covered in snow, and a nuclear power plant was taken offline to avoid overload.

The slump in power generation while it was so cold meant the supply of power couldn’t meet the demand and the grids market collapsed, so the lights went out in Texas for millions.

RELATED: How to help Texas residents during the winter storm

Northeast Ohio has been no stranger to large blackouts. On Aug. 14, 2003, temperatures across the region surged into the upper 80s, and a little after 3 o'clock on that hot Cleveland afternoon, a 345,000-volt transmission wire in Eastlake shorted out when it touched some nearby trees that had grown too close. In less than an hour, 55 million people in eight states and one Canadian province were in the dark.

While catastrophic, that blackout was nothing like Texas. The issue was an uncontrolled cascading failure of computer glitches, human error and institutional mismanagement.

Jeff Dagle, the Chief Electrical Engineer for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at the US Department of Energy who was a lead on the team investigating the 2003 Northeast Blackout, summarized that the Ohio grid failure was a problem with transmission, while the problems in Texas are caused by a problem with generation. But customers who are left in the dark and a local economy facing billions in economic impact are often the ones who suffer the most.

"This type of event occurs every 10 to 20 to 30 years, depending on where we're talking about the grid, and there’s usually a lot of quick changes that occur but not long-term changes," Tim Ferreira with Grid Subject Matter Experts (gridsme.com) said. "For the average household consumer, no, there’s nothing they can do, and even if all of them got together right now and said, 'We want this to never happen again' – they lobby their regulators and the changes get made and record speed – it would still be two to five years before any upgrades would actually hit the grid."

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