Five years since massive North American blackout
TORONTO - Five years ago Thursday, some 50 million North Americans suddenly lost their power and briefly learned to live without light, television and all the other energy-sucking conveniences that have become staples of modern life.
Surprisingly, a great many found they loved living in the dark and vowed to change their lifestyles by unplugging more often -- voluntarily -- and doing their part to help protect the environment.
But experts say most of the good intentions born in backyards under starlight on Aug. 14, 2003 faded away before long, and the returning cacophony of air conditioners humming betrayed those promises at first opportunity.
For at least a week, the public was urged to conserve power as much as it could and happily complied, just as it did when confronted with a myriad of roadblocks and inconveniences the day of the blackout.
Lawyer Peter Carayiannis still finds it hard to believe that frustrated drivers stuck in gridlock immediately followed his orders without question when he stepped into the middle of a busy downtown Toronto intersection to play traffic cop.
"I sort of remember looking at it and thinking, 'Someone's got to do something about this,"' he recalled of the beginning of his blackout experience, which would last about four hours until he was finally relieved from duty.
"To my complete surprise and shock, people were obeying my traffic signals."
Carayiannis said there was a unique sense of camaraderie that day that saw people put their typically selfish actions aside and work together to make the best of the situation.
"There were all kinds of impromptu block parties that happened all over the city, restaurants did their best to accommodate their customers, when something like a blackout occurs, people generally are going to pitch together and help out everyone else -- it sounds kinda hokey, but it's the truth," he said.
But Carayiannis, who does work with renewable energy issues, said he doesn't think many people kept their promises to consume less power and lessons about conservation are only now starting to resonate, five years later, for entirely different reasons.
"The price of gasoline in the last year has had a bigger impact on people's thoughts about conservation than the blackout," he said.
Canadians are now in the midst of a burgeoning environmental movement but the blackout of 2003 represented a bit of a false start in the public's determination to go green through energy conservation, said Jeff Walker, senior vice-president of public affairs for the pollster Harris-Decima.
"We never found in much of the research we had done that there was a direct connection between the big blackout and issues around using too much or too little energy," said Walker.
The devastation of hurricane Katrina and Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" had a much larger impact in pushing the public to consider how they could slow climate change, he said.
Conservation efforts have grown over the last five years but there's little to link the trend to the blackout, agreed Kim Warren, director of planning and assessments for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator.
"I think people are creatures of habit to some degree ... and I don't think there's any lingering effects in reduced consumption from the blackout," he said, although he noted that consumers have indicated a willingness to power down when needed.
"The individual customers out there I believe want to help."
But some insist the blackout was the true catalyst that awoke the public to how wasteful their lives had become.
The spirit of the random street parties the night of the blackout still lives on among a group of people in Mississauga, Ont., who launched blackoutday.ca to help organize anniversary parties.
They have also recruited about three dozen Ontario municipalities that have pledged to conserve power on Thursday.
Spokeswoman Sheryl Saint recalls her blackout experience as "so awesome" and said it marked the beginning of several good friendships with neighbours, whom she previously only acknowledged with a nod or wave.
It was also the start of a commitment by several on the street to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, she said.
"To me it was the blackout day that got me thinking more and more about the environment and everything I've been doing, it was just amazing how much we could get done without electricity and we actually enjoyed having no power," Saint said.
"There were a few things that would've been nice - like having the hot water tank working -- but for everything else, we became creative, we started having fondue."
Saint's sister Caroline Reilly, who also works on the website, urged individuals to do their part -- no matter how small -- which could convince others to do the same.
"It can be contagious, if you know one person doing something then another is more likely to start doing it as well and so it creates a chain reaction," Reilly said.
"(Environmental) problems have been ongoing for a very long time but now I'm seeing that people are taking it seriously, and I think it's only going to increase, probably exponentially, over the next little while."
A chronology of events in the blackout of Aug. 14, 2003:
- 12:15 p.m. ET - A computer glitch shuts down energy-supply monitoring system at the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator in Ohio.
- 1:31 p.m. - A FirstEnergy Corp. generator in Ohio shuts down. Half an hour later, the company's alarm system also fails.
- 3:05 p.m. - Trees hit three transmission lines in Ohio, knocking them out of service.
- 4:06 p.m. - Large-capacity Sammis-Star line falls in Ohio, sending waves of power cascading through the interconnected eastern network.
- 4:09 p.m. - Surges of between 2,000 and 4,000 megawatts of electricity rush through New York and Michigan, catching Ontario in between, and collapsing the entire power system. Fifty million people are left without electricity. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves declares state of emergency.
- 4:42 p.m. - Restoration efforts at generating facilities across the province begin. Niagara Island comes up first, the last that night was the final Bruce generating unit.
- 5:20 a.m. - Most of the province is reconnected to the grid, but power supplies are unstable.
- 6:00 a.m. - Lineups at gas stations and grocery stores build as people stock up on batteries, candles and other supplies. Millions of workers get the day off after Ontario Premier Ernie Eves calls on everyone to save energy by staying home. Joint Canada-U.S. task force to investigate cause of the blackout announced.
- Business resumes in Ontario, but government offices remain closed.
- Commercial electricity consumers in Ontario asked to operate on about half the electricity they would normally consume.
- State of emergency lifted in Ontario, non-essential employees told to head back to work.
- Task force releases interim report citing untimely combination of human and equipment failures as cause of blackout. Report places majority of responsibility on shoulders of companies in Ohio.
April 5, 2004:
- Final task force report released. Team makes 46 recommendations for averting a future blackout.