News Stories

Blackouts: What Will Happen in the Future

"We're a superpower with a third world grid," said former energy secretary Bill Richardson in an interview on CNN. Third world countries can't figure out why Thursday's power blackout spread so wide and lasted so long. They have blackouts all the time and recover much more quickly. As the world heats up, we're likely to have more blackouts too, so we need to learn from them.

"Look at their response there in New York," says radio commentator Joe Taruc in the Philippines. "If it happened here, it would be nothing out of the ordinary."

"Blackouts are a part of our daily life. I can't understand why there is such panic in America," says Turkish vendor Unal Karatas.

Blackouts occur several times a day over most of India, especially in the summer. In smaller countries, blackouts can be caused not only by hot weather and lightning strikes, but by problems like rebel attacks. In Liberia, there's been a blackout since 1992, when president Charles Taylor destroyed the hydroelectric plant.

In December 1999, more than half of the Philippines' power supply was knocked out after 50 tons of jellyfish suddenly swam into a generating plant's cooling system. But almost every large building in the Philippines has a back-up generator, and big companies have battery-powered units that keep their computers running when the power goes out. This means that as soon as Manila has a blackout, the lights start flickering back on. People pause for a moment, then resume their lives. Why does it take us as much as 3 days in some places to get the power switched back on?

What surprised people caught in this blackout the most was that their cell phones didn?t work. When all else fails, we always think we'll be able to rely on our cells. People in big cities did something they hadn't done in years?searched desperately for a pay phone.

Verizon Communications says both its wireless and conventional telephone networks never stopped working, but the problem was so many people trying to use their phones at the same time. AT&T Wireless, Nextel Communications, Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless say their networks experienced problems in areas where the electricity went out. Nextel says several hundred cell sites in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts and "possibly surrounding states" were not operating because of the power outage.

Cingular says the network it shares with T-Mobile in New York City had 1,650 cell sites down. AT&T says its normal load of 2 million calls every five minutes jumped to 2.6 million shortly during the blackout and continued at that rate for two hours. But a spokesman says that's nothing compared to the 435 million calls that were made on Sept. 11, 2001.

An unexpected consequence of the blackout will be higher gas prices and/or a shortage of gas in the upcoming weeks, because it shut down seven oil refineries in the U.S. and Canada. Also, gas stations hit by the blackout weren't able to open, meaning there will be pent-up demand which could cause lines. "The pumps run on electricity, so people can't fill up their tanks," says AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom. "The good part about this is that even though you lose a day of gasoline production, you also lose a day of demand."

You never know what's coming, so always be prepared.

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