American Transmission Co.

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50th Anniversary of Great Northeast Blackout

“Today’s failure is a dramatic reminder of the importance of the uninterrupted flow of power to the health, safety, and well being of our citizens and the defense of our country….” —President Lyndon B. Johnson, Nov. 9, 1965 after the Great Northeast Blackout

Beginning in the 1950s, the utility industry understood the need to build out a grid to accommodate the post-World War II demand for electricity. The idea was to balance generation across a broader geographic region to efficiently provide enough power during times of high usage, or peak demand, while not wasting reserve generating capacity simply to meet the high demand for a few hours of the day.

In the late afternoon of Nov. 9, 1965, a single transmission line in Niagara Falls, New York, tripped out of service, causing five more lines to became overloaded and trip. After four seconds, the northeastern power grid separated into islands, which went black within five minutes, leaving more than 30 million people across 800,000 square miles without power for up to 13 hours.

Coming during the evening rush hour, hundreds of thousands of people were stranded in elevators, many more in subways and office buildings; traffic in New York City ground to a halt.

Although not as large as the blackout of August 2003, when more than 80 million people were affected, the 1965 event brought home to everyone the important role electricity plays in our daily lives. It was the first widespread blackout, and it occurred during the Cold War. Many people thought it might be the beginning of the end of the world.

It also caused the industry to re-examine the grid network and to plan for the unexpected. It gave rise to the creation of a group of regional coordinating councils and power pools to develop industry standards for reliability. Today, the electric grid in the United States is networked into three different areas: The Eastern Interconnection that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast, the Western Interconnection from the Rockies to the Pacific, and the Texas Interconnection. The industry is regulated by the North American Electric Reliability Council, subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

To learn more about today’s modern electric grid, visit this Department of Energy website.