Metro Detroiters remember historic blackout that rocked North America 20 years ago

Ohio power line failure led to massive outage in 2003

DETROIT – Monday, Aug. 14, marks 20 years since the worst blackout in North American history.

The 2003 blackout impacted more than 50 million people across Michigan, seven other states, and parts of Canada.

It began after a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees and shut down. That led to a cascade of failures.

The blackout contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion.

Allen Park resident Thomas Perry remembers the blackout.

“On my five-mile walk, there was nobody who had any power,” Perry said.

He said the blackout lasted for days.

“Everybody cheered when the power went on,” Perry said.

Tim Sparks oversaw electric transmission and system protection at Consumers Energy at the time.

“A large portion of the electric transmission systems -- to the south and east of us, in particular -- had completely disconnected from the electric grid,” said Sparks, who is now the electric supply vice president at Consumers Energy.

Only a small portion of Consumers Energy’s customers were affected. But the blackout revealed vulnerabilities in the region’s power grid.

“Instead of that being just a localized incident, where you eventually sort of close down that circuit and keep the rest of the grid up and running, that quickly spread, in part because of some software bugs, in part because of some localized -- just, errors,” Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps said.

It served as a wakeup call for utility companies.

“There’s many more standards that are in place today than what there used to be to prevent things like the blackout from happening,” Sparks said.

MISO, short for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, is like the air traffic controller of the power system. It focuses on managing the flow of high-voltage electricity across 15 states.

“In the MISO region, we have seen significant investments in transmission infrastructure as well as much more sophisticated IT and market tools installed on our operation systems,” MISO said in a statement to Local 4. “Another difference over the past two decades is the focus on interregional cooperation and working closely with our neighbors.”

Across the country, utility companies continue to step up their efforts to respond to emerging cybersecurity threats from criminal hackers and nation states.

“Over the past 20 years, MISO’s cyber security plan has evolved to include a detailed ‘defense in depth’ strategy that provides multiple layers of protection from potential cyber intruders,” the statement said. “Our tools and procedures monitor for intrusions and quickly act to isolate any threat. MISO works closely with our members and federal authorities to constantly review and update our cyber plans and procedures to guard against future threats.”

DTE Energy declined an on-camera interview request, but released a statement that said, “We take the security of our energy infrastructure extremely seriously. We are constantly monitoring for risks to our system and regularly practice drills so we may quickly respond to any possible scenario and continue delivering the energy our customers need to live, work and learn each day.”

But for many Michigan utility customers, they say more needs to be done to prevent weather-related outages.

Keith Cooley, who lives in Detroit, heads the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, which was formed in 2018 to represent the interests of residential energy customers across the state.

“I’m concerned it could get worse if we don’t, as a state, look at what other states have been doing around providing pay for performance, where the utilities figure out how to perform better and give more reliable service to its customers, (and then) they are allowed to have their rate increases,” Cooley said.

Scripps said utility providers need to make more investments on vegetation management, such as tree trimming. That could make a big difference in limiting storm-related outages that often result from power lines coming into contact with trees, he said.

“Job No. 1 is to continue to focus on reliability,” Scripps said.

About the Author:

Will Jones rejoined the Local 4 News team in February 2023 as a weekend anchor and reporter. He previously worked as a general assignment reporter for the station from 2012 to 2015.