Market Research and Insight

While big storms — winter blizzards, severe summer thunderstorms and hurricanes — are the leading cause of power outages, a host of other factors...

While big storms — winter blizzards, severe summer thunderstorms and hurricanes — are the leading cause of power outages, a host of other factors can also lead to grid failures, darkened homes, dead computers and cold showers. Some of the strangest causes ever include:

  1. A 1981 trash fire at a Utah prison that led to an explosion that damaged a major transmission line. The resulting outage left 1.5 million people across three states in the dark.
  2. A landslide in Taiwan in 1999 took out a transmission tower that cut power to nearly 8.5 million people.
  3. A stork was blamed for leaving half of Portugal, including the city of Lisbon, in the dark in 2000.
  4. The area around Rio de Janeiro in Brazil was left without power in 2005, victim of an apparent cyber attack. Similar attacks have occurred since then.
  5. A floating crane — the mechanical, not the avian, variety — struck an extra-high-voltage transmission lines over Japan’s Edo River, knocking out electricity to nearly 1.4 million people across the greater Tokyo area in 2006.
  6. An illegal two-fer — a marijuana grow house whose owner was apparently also stealing electricity from the grid — led to a transformer overload and power outage in Florida in late 2010, according to Eaton Corporation’s 2010 Blackout Tracker annual report.
  7. Also from Eaton’s annual report: in November of 2010, some 4,000 customers in Ohio were left without electricity because someone with a gun apparently decided to use a power line insulator for target practice.
  8. A giant solar storm was blamed for a power outage affecting around 6 million Hydro-Quebec customers in March 1989. Similar geomagnetic storms caused several massive telegraph service disruptions in the 1800s, and scientists and engineers warn a really big storm could wreak havoc to modern utilities.
  9. Large waves indirectly caused a blackout in Indonesia in 2008: the waves prevented coal shipments from getting through, which put a major crimp on coal-fired power plants.
  10. Human error isn’t in itself a weird cause of blackouts, because it does happen from time to time. A 1998 power outage that affected some 350,000 customers in the San Francisco area, though, was a little different from the rest. The mistake involved putting online a substation that shouldn’t have been, as it had been grounded for maintenance. That single move caused such a large power drain that 25 other substations immediately shut down automatically.

Dan Ilett