The Basics of Blackouts (and How We Can Avoid Them)

new york city blackout

Blackouts are back in the news.

Unfortunately, there’s a pattern developing—more days of extreme temperatures (hot or cold) cause residential and commercial power use to spike, our aging energy systems become stressed to the point of failure as heating and cooling demands rise, and outages begin to strike homes and businesses all across an affected area. At best, it’s a major inconvenience. At worst, it creates a scary, potentially life-threatening situation for many of the people involved.

That’s the simplest way to explain why outages have increasingly become a cause for concern. But what’s really happening in the moments and days leading up to a blackout? And more importantly, how can we escape from this increasingly predictable cycle of events?

There is a way out. And it’s going to take some effort from all of us to get there.

Our energy infrastructure

The North American energy grid is often referred to as the biggest machine on earth. It’s an understandable nickname, as the system is responsible for delivering power to approximately 400 million people across the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico.

Given this size, along with the extremely wide variety of geographies and climates the grid is responsible for servicing, it’s understandable that the actual workings of the system are massively complex. (Seriously. Books, news articles, and an endless number of academic studies have been written about it.)

We could spend days digging into the details, but that isn’t necessary or particularly interesting. For now, we’ll take a look at two key elements of the grid’s structure and operations as outlined by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Here’s what you need to know.

The country’s energy grid is made up of 3 major interconnections

The U.S. energy grid functionally exists as three separate entities, each servicing a specific region. While the three interconnections are connected at several points, power transfers between them are limited.

  • The Western interconnection covers the area from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountain states.
  • The Eastern interconnection covers the area east of the Rocky Mountain states.
  • The Texas interconnection covers most, but not all, of Texas. (Much of the Texas panhandle falls within the Eastern interconnection.)

There are 10 electric power markets in the United States

As defined by FERC, America comprises 10 distinct electricity markets. The majority of the country’s geography, and about two thirds of its population, is served by independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs) that represent 7 out of the 10 individual power markets. These non-profit organizations are responsible for ensuring equal access to electricity and managing the reliable transmission of power across the area. (In the remaining markets—notably the Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast regions shown on the map below—multiple utilities and federal systems assume responsibility for energy transmission.)


power markets

Among many other functions, RTOs and ISOs are typically the operators to raise a red flag when it looks like a region is at risk of widespread outages. That’s why you may recognize the name ERCOT: The Energy Reliability Council of Texas found itself in the spotlight as it answered for Texas’ grid failures caused by winter storms in early 2021. Currently, ERCOT is navigating a stressed energy system once again as the Lone Star State endures a very warm summer.

ERCOT is more isolated than other regional entities due to its oversight of the standalone Texas interconnection, but it isn’t the only operator feeling the stresses of extreme weather. This spring, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) issued a notice that the region it services could encounter an insufficient supply of energy throughout the summer due to warm temperatures and high demand. Fortunately, the worst-case predictions haven’t actually taken place, but the statement from MISO remains a warning sign that should be taken seriously.

The nuances and complexities of these regional structures are endless, but the big takeaway is this: We’re relying on systems that are responsible for serving millions of customers across multiple states and diverse geographies. Spikes in demand or significant infrastructure failures can have ripple effects across huge swaths of the country. In dire circumstances, extreme weather in Minnesota can carry implications for the availability of power in Arkansas.

Right now, we’re dodging disaster. By turning to emergency reserves and tapping into energy generated by other markets, as well as asking customers to limit their energy use during peak periods, catastrophic outcomes have largely been avoided up to this point. But it would be foolish to assume those short-term fixes will remain effective as the grid endures additional extreme weather events and comes under greater stress.

The next steps

So we’ve found ourselves in a situation where our (largely isolated) energy systems are supporting massive amounts of the country, working harder than ever due to an increasing number of severe weather events, and showing serious signs of aging. That’s a tough combination. But our fate isn’t sealed!

We actually have a pretty solid blueprint for addressing the shortcomings of our current energy infrastructure. And we all have a role to play in putting the plan into action.

So what does that actually look like for the everyday energy user? One of the most promising ways to avoid overwhelming our energy grid is by simply using it less.

That’s… extremely obvious, right? Sure. What’s less obvious, and ultimately more promising, is how accessible and affordable it can be to shift your energy use away from the grid right now. (And don’t worry. We’re not going to ask you to reduce your grid reliance by sitting in darkness all day or retiring the use of your air conditioner. We’re more innovative than that!)

One of the bright beacons of opportunity that exists as we work toward fixing our power systems is known as distributed energy.

Distributed energy systems generate and utilize power all in the same location. (This obviously stands in stark contrast to the structure of the U.S. energy grid, where electricity might travel hundreds or thousands of miles before reaching its intended user.) Microgrids, community solar projects, wind farms, battery storage, and other resources all have the capability to provide distributed energy, and they all make a difference in helping us to avoid many of the worst-case scenarios presented by the fragile future of the larger grid.

First, distributed energy significantly reduces your susceptibility to power outages. Although these new energy sources typically maintain a connection to the larger grid, they’re generating power right where you’ll end up using it and cutting out the long-distance transmission process. These sources are able to continue operating when there’s an outage on the grid, giving you more reliable energy access and keeping you from the many headaches of a power failure.

On a broader scale, you’ll be doing your part to remove stress from our overworked energy grid. By bringing a new power source to your property and putting it to use in your daily operations, you’re directly reducing the amount of energy the grid is being expected to deliver. As we discussed earlier, excess demand can lead to significant operational challenges (including blackouts), so drawing some of your energy from a different source makes a real impact in improving the functionality of our country’s power grid. When many individuals and businesses turn to distributed energy, we’re creating a more energy-secure future for all.

Like we said, the tools that are necessary to leverage distributed energy are available right now. For many, solar microgrids are a particularly viable option. Bringing a solar array on site to your property is a powerful way to add a new and local energy source to your daily operations. Plus, the financial benefits are significant: Incentives make it very affordable to install a microgrid, and with solar energy available at competitive rates, you can expect consistently lower electric bills once your system is up and running.

As a provider of Connected Microgrid solutions, we’re obviously biased toward their capabilities. But we aren’t the only ones who believe in microgrids as a transformative technology for our power systems! The Department of Energy puts them at the top of a list outlining the ways we can strengthen the resilience of the U.S. grid.

The power to avoid widespread blackouts and other catastrophic energy events is at our fingertips. Even better, the essential resources are accessible, affordable, and more capable than ever before.

We have the tools and technologies it takes to strengthen our energy systems together. Join us on the path to a more resilient country and a brighter future!