Those who vividly remember the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 — an event that resulted in 55 million people from New Jersey to Ohio to even Toronto losing power starting in late afternoon Aug. 14 — also recall this: Some initially thought it was a terrorist act.
The blackout, the second-largest in history, came less than two years after 9/11, and fit a popular prediction of the time: An attack on the country’s utility infrastructure would be so crippling (and widespread) that it was a likely target.
A connection to terrorism was quickly dismissed. The cause of the outage was identified as the result of a software bug in Ohio. Power, in fact, was restored in most places by midnight.
The impact of the event, however, lives on to this day.
Remarking on the 20th anniversary, numerous New Jersey utility leaders said that event — combined with Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — changed the way utility infrastructure was viewed by residents and government officials and led to numerous efforts that have made the industry stronger.
Since the 2003 blackout, Public Service Electric & Gas officials said the company has spent billions of dollars to further enhance the reliability and resiliency of its transmissions and distribution systems, with the aim of leaving no one in the dark.
“PSE&G has a strong track record for providing safe, reliable utility service, and this unprecedented blackout was a critical point in our industry,” PSE&G President and Chief Operating Officer Kim Hanemann said.
“Millions of people benefited from changes to federal policy after the 2003 blackout that enabled additional necessary investment into the U.S. transmission grid. For PSE&G, it resulted in 20 years of infrastructure investments designed to create a more reliable and resilient grid while strengthening New Jersey’s critical energy infrastructure and economy.”
Mike Renna, CEO of South Jersey Industries, agreed.
“The 20th anniversary of the 2003 Northeast blackout, much like Superstorm Sandy, changed the conversation and utility investment priorities,” he said. “Across New Jersey, utilities moved quickly to modernize and harden systems.
“At SJI, investments we’ve made over the last decade have greatly improved safety and reliability across our system — especially in our more vulnerable communities like southern New Jersey’s barrier islands and our urban centers. South Jersey Gas has fully replaced all bare steel and cast-iron infrastructure and now proudly operates one of the country’s most modern energy delivery systems. Elizabethtown Gas is fast-tracking its efforts, and is on track, to be fully modernized in the next five years.”
Mark Kahrer, senior vice president at New Jersey Natural Gas, said the big events have shown the importance of having multiple sources of energy.
“On the anniversary of the great Northeast blackout, it’s important to reflect on the lessons learned from 20 years ago, as well as those from Superstorm Sandy and more recently Tropical Storm Isaias,” he said. “As lifeline service providers, utilities deliver the energy customers rely on for their homes, businesses and quality of life. Investing in the safety and reliability of energy infrastructure is critical.
“Just as important is ensuring resiliency. What is clear is having two energy systems — electric and gas — significantly improves reliability and resiliency and helps ensure customers have access to the energy they need even during the worst of times.”
The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 spurred federal action.
With a goal of ensuring a more reliable and resilient grid, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (known as NERC), a not-for-profit international regulatory authority whose mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid.
Video: A look back — and ahead
“The Grid — 20 Years of Progress Since the 2003 Northeast Blackout,” reflects on the progress made since the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003.
NERC develops and enforces reliability standards; annually assesses seasonal and long‐term reliability; monitors the bulk power system through system awareness; and educates, trains, and certifies industry personnel. NERC’s area of responsibility spans the continental U.S., Canada, and the northern portion of Baja California, Mexico.
NERC was certified as the Electric Reliability Organization by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July 2006, with the first standards going into effect in March 2007. Reflecting the interconnected nature of the grid, the National Energy Board in Canada subsequently entered into a memorandum of understanding, recognizing NERC as the international ERO in September 2006.
“Since its inception, the ERO Enterprise has adapted to the ever-evolving challenges facing the bulk power system,” NERC CEO Jim Robb said. “Following the blackout, we were focused on vegetation management to ensure an event like the 2003 blackout would not occur again.”
The challenges are just as strong today.
Industry officials feel the industry is at an inflection point facing a wide variety of new challenges — resource and transmission adequacy, inverter-based resources, extreme weather and increased security threats.
Robb said NERC and its six regional entities are uniquely positioned to work with industry, stakeholders, government partners and policymakers to identify and mitigate any potential impacts. While NERC and the regional entities play different roles in assuring the reliability and security of the grid, each role is equally important and complementary, allowing the ERO Enterprise to work effectively, efficiently and collaboratively.
“As we have become more dependent on technology on the grid and in our everyday lives, the challenges our industry is facing have become even more complex,” he said. “We must remain agile to be able to successfully address these changes before they become issues.”
The impact can be felt throughout the state.
Hanemann said Public Service Enterprise Group, PSE&G’s parent, is devoting serious dollars to the issue. In 2023 alone, PSE&G has planned capital expenditures of more than $3.5 billion, the largest investment plan in the utility’s history.
Some examples of projects completed this year that will have a big impact on electric reliability include:
- The $350 million Newark Switch Rebuild Project. It is aimed at modernizing the Newark Switching Station, which is the heart of PSE&G’s Newark transmission/distribution network, servicing many critical customers including municipal, state and federal offices, several event venues, mass transit, multiple colleges/universities and more.
- The $550 million Roseland – Pleasant Valley Project: Completed in May and one of PSE&G’s largest transmission projects to date, the 51-mile undertaking replaced older transmission facilities that were, on average, approximately 90 years old.
In addition, PSE&G officials said the company has completed a number of substation hardening and transformer replacement projects to maintain reliability and has completed circuit upgrades to improve the reliability of 561 distribution circuits that serve over 1.1 million customers across the state.
John Latka, PSE&G’s senior vice president, electric transmission and distribution, said strengthening the distribution system ensures fewer customers experience outages and, when they do occur, the duration is shorter.
Renna said SJI’s recent investments in developing sources of energy show the complete commitment the utility has.
“(These investments) provide the means for our utilities to deliver the decarbonized energy of the future in hydrogen and renewable natural gas,” he said. “Working in partnership with our regulators, we are committed to accelerating investments that will strengthen our system, making it more efficient and resilient while simultaneously supporting the transition to a lower-carbon future.”
All of this goes to the idea that the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 should never be forgotten — or repeated.
“At New Jersey Natural Gas, we are committed to meeting our customers’ expectations for safety and reliability every day and investing in a cleaner, more resilient energy future for us all,” Kahrer said.