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The Biggest Blackouts In History

Posted by Christos Panayiotou on 28th October 2014

We have all experienced a power cut in our homes at some point or another. Often they are caused by random events and freak weather conditions but it is very rare these days in the UK to have a major blackout that effects large numbers of people. We thought we would do a bit of digging and see how big the biggest blackouts in history were. We expected them all to have been many years ago, however to our surprise we discovered many of the biggest happened in the last few years. So here are the top 5 in reverse order:

5. 11th March 1999 – Brazil & Paraguay Blackout – Affected 97,000,000 People

At the time the 1999 Southern Brazil Blackout was the biggest in history. The blackout covered major cities both sides of the border between Brazil and Paraguay including Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro and many more. At 10:16PM lightning struck an electricity substation in Bauru and caused a chain of events that took out the power to an estimated 75 to 97 million people. Happening late at night made the situation worse and the government had to deploy 1,200 military police and close many tunnels to prevent looting and attacks. 60,000 people were stuck on the subway when the power went down and had to wait until after midnight for power to start returning.

4. 18th August 2005 – Java- Bali Blackout – Affected 100,000,000 People

At 10.23 AM on the 18th August 2005 a transmission line failed in west Java. This led to a cascading failure of 8 power units in both the west and east of the island. The amount of power available dropped and there was a shortfall of 2,700 MW, roughly half the required supply. The blackout lasted until 5PM that day. Whilst the impact was less severe during the day time, disruption to transport, business and usually day to day life remained huge. Following the blackout the government ordered the police and national intelligence agency to investigate the root cause of the event to prevent it from happening again.

3. 2nd January 2001 - 2001 India Blackout – Affected 230,000,000 People

When the 2001 India Blackout hit virtually all of northern India went down. The whole region ground to halt and many hospitals were unable to function properly and millions of people were unable to draw water from underground wells. Trains stopped working and lines were blocked for up 15 hours. At the time this was the biggest blackout in history only to be gazumped 11 years later. It was estimated that the blackout cost the economy over a billion dollars in lost revenue and there were angry scenes across the region where consumers and business leaders called for the electricity systems to be privatised.

2. 30th July 2012 – 2012 India Blackout 1 – Affected 330,000,000 People

The 2 biggest blackouts in history were caused essentially by a late monsoon and extreme heat in New Delhi. Essentially extra power was required to run the agricultural pumps running irrigation in paddy fields. This coupled with the fact that the hydropower plants were generating less power than usual (again due to the late monsoons) put a huge strain on the system.

At 2:35AM circuit breakers on a 400 kV line tripped. As this line fed into another transmission section, breakers at the station also tripped, and power failures cascaded through the grid. All major power stations were shut down in the affected states, causing an estimated shortage of 32 GW. Officials described the failure as "the worst in a decade". The power remained off until 8:00AM but had a knock effect for the rest of the day where planes, trains and the Monday morning rush hour were all effected. The blackout effected over 25% of India population and it took around 15 hours to restore 80% of the service. However this was rather short lived.

1. 31st July 2012 – 2012 India Blackout 2 – Affected 600,000,000 People

At 1PM the next day a relay problem near to the world famous Taj Mahal started a chain of events which eventually saw numerous power stations across the northern region of India go down. The result was that nearly half of India’s population went offline (around 9% of the world’s population!) with 22 of 28 states without power. The blackout lasted around 12 hours and caused even more problems for a country trying the deal with 89% humidity. Outrage followed and the existing power minister ordered an investigation into the cause, however he was not in his post on the 12th August 2012 when the report was issued. The investigation concluded the following:


Weak inter-regional power transmission corridors due to multiple existing outages (both scheduled and forced);

High loading on 400 kV Bina–Gwalior–Agra link;

Inadequate response by State Load Dispatch Centers (SLDCs) to the instructions of Regional Load Dispatch Centres (RLDCs) to reduce over-drawal by the Northern Region utilities and under-drawal/excess generation by the Western Region utilities;

Loss of 400 kV Bina–Gwalior link due to mis-operation of its protection system.

It’s no surprise that India occupies the top 3 spots in this top 5. This is in part due to the huge number of people that live there coupled with an infrastructure which is outdated and often not fit for purpose. India is the 3rd largest electricity consumer in the world behind the USA and China. It is estimated that 27% of energy generated is lost in transmission or stolen! Around 25% of people in the country still live without any electricity at all and the country is used to suffering smaller outages on a regular basis.


Categories: blackouts