(Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

The question was a reflex: Is it terror? The power failure at the start of rush hour put tens of millions of people in the U.S. and Canada on edge. Radio and TV news reports soon allayed the fears, conveying comforting assurances from government officials. But they began to raise new questions as the disaster’s breathtaking scope became clear. The blackout of 2003 was the worst in North American history.

On the afternoon of Aug. 14, a series of transmission lines in Ohio and Michigan gradually tripped off. As each line’s current was rerouted, pressure on the system built. The tempo of trips grew after 3 p.m. Shortly after 4 p.m., the failures cascaded like floodwater topping a dam, overwhelming defenses and washing over eight states and two provinces.

In nine seconds, transmission sys-tems shed 61,800 Mw of load, plunging 10.5-million customers into the pre-electric age and stranding tens of thousands in elevators, subways, commuter trains and air terminals. The failure of municipal water pumps and electrically operated controls spilled raw sewage into rivers, lakes and harbors and allowed cross-contamination of drinking water, threatening the health of millions. No terrorist could have dreamed of a more devastating attack.
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With power restored and life gradually returning to normal, industry officials collected data from thousands of points, preparing to try to identify the causes of the blackout. In Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, political leaders and regulatory officials geared up to launch their own investigations. Theories abound, but many fingers are pointing at the stalled progress of electric-industry deregu-lation. Lack of regulatory certainty has stymied investment in new and upgraded transmission infrastructure.

Until the problem’s causes are clear, no one knows what new construction will be required. But industry observers for years have said $50 billion to $60 billion will be required to make the North American transmission grid adequate to meet the 21st Century’s demands.

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