On the afternoon of August 14, 2003, electricity failed to arrive in New York City, plunging the eight million inhabitants of the Big Apple--along with 40 million other people throughout the northeastern U.S. and Ontario--into a tense night of darkness. After one power plant in Ohio had shut down, elevated power loads overheated high-voltage lines, which sagged into trees and short-circuited. Like toppling dominoes, the failures cascaded through the electrical grid, knocking 265 power plants offline and darkening 24,000 square kilometers.
That incident--and an even more extensive blackout that affected 56 million people in Italy and Switzerland a month later--called attention to pervasive problems with modern civilization's vital equivalent of a biological circulatory system, its interconnected electrical networks. In North America the electrical grid has evolved in piecemeal fashion over the past 100 years. Today the more than $1-trillion infrastructure spans the continent with millions of kilometers of wire operating at up to 765,000 volts. Despite its importance, no single organization has control over the operation, maintenance or protection of the grid; the same is true in Europe. Dozens of utilities must cooperate even as they compete to generate and deliver, every second, exactly as much power as customers demand--and no more. The 2003 blackouts raised calls for greater government oversight and spurred the industry to move more quickly, through its Intelli-Grid Consortium and the Grid-Wise program of the U.S. Department of Energy, to create self-healing systems for the grid that may prevent some kinds of outages from cascading. But reliability is not the only challenge--and arguably not even the most important challenge--that the grid faces in the decades ahead.