Industry Article

History’s 10 Most Notorious Blackouts

December 25, 2023 by Robert Cathcart, Solar Fast

This article explores ten of the most notorious power blackouts in history and offers insight into how blackouts can be minimized and even eliminated in the future.

Blackouts are bad news. Not only do they cause significant inconvenience, but the disruption puts services like traffic control and healthcare under significant strain, potentially putting lives at risk.


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In fact, long-term blackouts can severely impact the economy, stopping businesses from carrying out the daily processes required to generate profit.


1. The Great Northeast Blackout

The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 caused one of the most significant power failures in history, impacting parts of eastern Canada, New York state, and some areas of seven other nearby states.

The tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line in Ontario, Canada, caused this massive blackout. In turn, this caused several other loaded lines to fall, leading to a widespread blackout due to a surge of power, drastically overloading transmission lines in western New York.

This blackout happened during rush hour, impacting over 30 million people across the U.S. and Canada.


2. The New York City Blackout

On July 13-14, 1977, New Your City was already on the brink with the financial crisis and high unemployment putting much of the population on edge. Then disaster struck, literally, as a lightning bolt hit Buchanan South (a substation located on the Hudson River), leading to two circuit breakers tripping. This and several other lighting strikes across the city and surrounding areas led to major blackouts.

What followed was 25 hours of chaos, with widespread looting and fires across the city. A congressional study estimated that $300 million (about $1.5 billion today) in damage occurred during the blackouts. 


3. The Indian Blackout

In 2012, more than 700 million people in India were left without power in one of recent times' worst blackouts.

Although the exact cause isn’t clear, the blackout was likely due to poor infrastructure and an unpredicted shift in power requirements across the country, leading to some parts of the grid becoming overloaded and unable to cope.  

During this time, 28 Indian states were hit by power cuts, including the capital city of New Delhi. Widespread chaos ensued, with many trains coming to a standstill, stranding passengers. It also caused traffic lights to go out, producing huge traffic jams in densely populated areas. 


4. The Venezuelan Blackout

The Venezuelan Blackout affected many parts of the country from March 7-14, 2019. Experts suggest these blackouts were due to poor grid maintenance and a lack of expertise to ensure long-term sustainability within the country. However, the administration at the time suggested it resulted from sabotage. 

Predictably, this caused widespread issues, with many people unable to perform their jobs within the medical industry. It also impacted central transport systems, grinding highly populated areas to a halt. 


5. The Italian Blackout

In 2003, all of the Italian Peninsula and parts of Switzerland suffered the effects of a 12-hour power outage—one of the biggest power outages ever recorded in Europe. This was one of several blackouts in 2003 and impacted 56 million people.

Reports suggest this blackout resulted from two trees falling on the line that supplied electricity to Italy from Switzerland, causing it to trip. Increased demand led to two lines between France and Italy tripping. 


6. The Northeast Blackout

The Northeast Blackout in August 2003 impacted the Northeast U.S., parts of the Midwest, and a large part of the Canadian province of Ontario. It is considered the most widespread blackout in North American history.

It is thought that the blackout was initially caused by tree branches damaging the power lines in Ohio. This was then compounded and further complicated by a series of human errors and equipment failures. 


7. The South American Blackout

On June 16, 2019, large areas of Argentina, Paraguay, and all of Uruguary were struck by a power outage. This blackout was reportedly caused by operational mismanagement by Transener (a transmission line operator). 

Although the power was returned to much of Argentina by the following day, Argentine President Mauricio Macri promised a full investigation to establish why this unprecedented outage occurred. 


8. The Indonesian Blackout 

In 2019, the power went out across Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta. This blackout impacted 10 million people, all without electricity for 16 hours beginning in the early morning. Although power outages aren't unheard of in Indonesia, this was unusually long and saw significant disruption across the city. 

Many residents suspected that the blackout resulted from a 7.4-magnitude earthquake that hit the city a few days before. However, official sources reported it was, in fact, the result of a technical failure that led to voltage drops in the power network across the city. 


9. The Texas Winter Storm
From February 13-17, 2021, much of the United States, Northern Mexico, and parts of Canada faced what was unofficially dubbed Winter Storm Uri. This storm caught many parts of the country unprepared and caused significant disruption to transportation, essential services, and everyday lives. 

The storm resulted in weather alerts, impacting over 170 million people across America. This included 9.9 million people who experienced blackouts across the U.S. and Mexico. These blackouts were the largest faced in the U.S. since the Northeast blackout in 2003. 


10. The Pakistan Blackout

On January 23, 2023, Pakistan experienced a huge power outage, which lasted more than 12 hours in some areas. This blackout was the second major grid breakdown in the country in the last 24 months and signaled major issues with the country's grid. 

The blackouts impacted some 230 million people—99% of the population. 

The reason behind the blackout is largely unclear, although statements indicate the outage began in southern Sindh Province due to an ‘unusual fluctuation’ in voltage. 


The Solution to Blackouts

Blackouts can seriously affect economies, infrastructure, and the general population. Although many of the biggest blackouts in history have been in developing countries, even European countries and the U.S. can be significantly impacted by failures across the grid.

Renewable energy sources could help limit or eliminate future blackouts.

For example, large-scale solar farms could close the gap between demand and supply, which would be especially beneficial in less developed countries where supply chains may be unreliable. Small-scale solar panels installed on individual property rooftops and local battery storage could remove reliance on large grid systems altogether.