Northeast Blackout: 20 years of infrastructure improvements

There are moments in history where we all have that “where were you when” story. 

Psychologists call this a “flashbulb memory” – a highly vivid and detailed “snapshot” of a moment in which a consequential, surprising and emotionally arousing piece of news was learned. For example: the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of a war or even a royal wedding.

In some cases, the flashbulb memory is a moment in time where people faced great adversity and have a personal story to share how their life was forever changed. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and Superstorm Sandy are good examples. 

Today is the anniversary of a big flashbulb memory for me and millions of Americans – especially fellow power providers. 

Twenty years ago today, Aug. 14, was the most widespread power outage in North American history and a major turning point for the electrical grid, prompting billions of dollars of infrastructure investments

The video highlights progress the ERO Enterprise has made. Read more.

It was about 4 p.m. and I was on the 12th floor of our headquarters in Newark when we lost power. Our backup generators kicked on and I made my way down 12 flights of stairs into our emergency operations center to figure out what was happening. The board that monitors our system and alerts us about outages was lit up like never before. 

We had about 750,000 customers without power. Fortunately, the diversification and design protections in our system helped contain the problem. So the outage stopped midway through our service territory.

It took several hours to figure out what caused the blackout and eliminate our worst fear of a terrorist attack.  The weather was fine; it wasn’t stormy.  Unlike other outages, there were no trees down in our service area, no storm damage to contend with. 

It turned out that a series of faults caused by tree branches touching power lines in Ohio triggered a shutdown stretching from New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey to west Michigan, and from Ohio north to Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario.  Approximately 50 million customers were impacted. 

The impact on our customers, luckily, was not as bad as those in other states. Of our 750,000 customers without power, nearly three-quarters were back on line within five hours and virtually all by noon the next day. Customers in other states endured multiple days without power, and we know our customers are grateful we were able to restore power quickly and safely. 

In New Jersey, we didn’t need to go out and remove trees, replace poles or repair equipment.  But we did need to quickly mobilize all of our available personnel to manually re-energize the over 100 stations that were affected.  

While technology provided critical tools, our most vital asset in this recovery was our highly skilled, dedicated and motivated workforce. Our teams safely reenergized the system, circuit by circuit.

The blackout prompted major changes to federal policy and oversight. For us, it was a critical milestone, helping to prioritize infrastructure investments that have resulted in a more reliable and resilient grid and strengthening New Jersey’s critical energy infrastructure. Since the 2003 blackout, we have invested billions of dollars strengthening and modernizing our transmission and distribution systems, with the aim of leaving no one in the dark. This year is no exception. Our 2023 planned capital expenditures of more than $3.5 billion is the largest investment plan in the utility’s history.

Isn’t it ironic that a memory about the lights going out is called a flashbulb memory?

Many of you have your own flashbulb memories about the 2003 blackout. 

What’s your story? What were you doing when the lights went out? Tell us in the comments below.

John Latka, Senior Vice President Electric Transmission & Distribution - PSE&G


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  • I remember like it was yesterday. In the Newark G.O. the lights went out for a short time and quickly came back on. I felt this was strange so I made my way down to the emergency response center on LL2, where John Latka told me that we might have lost up to 1/2 the system. I then made my way over to ESOC to find out what was going on. I remember the System Operators working together to try to understand the situation and how they needed to piece the system back together as quickly as possible. I remember how impressed I was with the operators working in such calm and collected manner. Voltages were very high during the restoration and there was some fear of equipment failure, but as load starting coming back on it became a little easier. From my perspective, the aftermath of the blackout, all of the system analysis we performed, working with NERC and trying to put together the story was certainly one of the most interesting times in my career. All of the standards and requirements that followed in the wake of the blackout changed forever how we design and operate the system.

  • I found the blackout’s to be linked to the schedule of the lights from the houses, automatic on and automatic off and the exchange of lighting of the Madison Street Moon regarding the Coney Island Project I was working on. In Hoboken alone it has three areas of specialty for the commuter, regarding the land-plan and bussiness-plans etc. they are under police in movement of the people. Two police and one witches-den; the den would be fine if there wasn’t someone using it it is semi-attached. Parent Companies and Housing for the people to be the direct step one that landed. The second is the Business to Business that runs from the Library to the Shelter all under police too I believe. It runs straight until an event comes up; I think now it is an attempt to obstruct my mission; however it is, it is the next current that comes in from Columbus Circle it is the wrong way current and runs for then years it should have stopped if it knows which way to go. It looks like now it should head back to that area and then return home and the business to business floorplans should return back to the previous floorplan for proper cleaning of the grounds. How is it called an event would be from CVS to CVS New York City to Hoboken New Jersey still makes it from the Seasonal Isle but was expected to be stopped in 1987. it is second to the walkthrough because teh “event” hasn’t happened in three years from Chicago to New york CVS then the Hoboken on is manual. That means we found the ten years that was not accounted for if it was stopped prior to 1977 a mission found at that being the invasion of the trending and forecasting at the location. According to notes “if an event happens in the Seasonal Isle it puts something on the calendar to attend to”. The reset and re-sign with the community of the lights schedule should help but now it is from an earlier time from Povonia Newport as well. http://www.post-no-bills-eru and you can see some of my work. thanks. Yvonne

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