Rolling blackout

Rolling blackout

A rolling blackout, also referred to as load shedding, is an intentionally-engineered electrical power outage. These blackouts are normally in response to insufficient resources and inability to meet prevailing demand for electricity. For information about accidental blackouts that are not intentionally engineered, see power outage.

In many African and South Asian countries – e.g. India, South Africa, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Zimbabwe – a combination of aging electricity generation infrastructure, and the inadequacy of the supply of electricity to the ever expanding demand, has made rolling blackouts a staple of daily life.

United States


In April 2006, parts of Texas experienced rolling blackouts due to excessive air conditioner use because of unexpectedly high temperatures. The longest power outage lasted for a period of five hours, affecting areas in the Middle to the South of Texas. The Texas power system runs on a system similar to the one in California.


Though the term did not enter popular use in the U.S. until the California electricity crisis of the early 2000s, such outages had occurred previously, almost always triggered by unusually hot temperatures during the summer, which cause a surge in demand due to heavy use of air conditioning. However, in 2004, taped conversations of Enron traders became public showing that traders were purposely manipulating the supply of electricity, in order to raise energy prices.

Bearing most of the blame was California Gov. Joseph Graham (Gray) Davis Jr. Critics would point out that he acted too slow, while his defenders point out that California law prevented action without approval from FERC, the Federal Energy Regluatory Commision.

On Dec 13, 2003, shortly before leaving office, Davis officially brought the energy crisis to an end by issuing a proclamation ending the state of emergency he declared on January 17, 2001. The state of emergency allowed the state to buy electricity for the financially strapped utility companies. The emergency authority allowed Davis to order the California Energy Commission to streamline the application process for new power plants. During that time, California issued licenses to 38 new power plants, amounting to 14,365 megawatts of electricity production when completed.

Rolling blackouts were again imposed in late August 2005 in Southern California due to the loss of a key transmission line; the transmission line shut itself off because of a faulty sensor.

Most of California is divided into 14 power grids, each containing approximately 7% of electricity customers in the state, creating a total of 98%. The remaining 2% are placed on a separate grid, where users such as hospitals and police stations are exempt from ever having their power deliberately cut off.

In a Stage 1 emergency only a general call for voluntary conservation is issued, while a Stage 2 emergency results in power being temporarily cut off to certain large users, primarily industrial concerns, who have agreed to this arrangement in exchange for lower rates. When a Stage 3 power emergency is declared, electricity to one of the grids is shut off for a fixed period of time, which can range from 60 minutes to 2½ hours. If after this period of time the Stage 3 emergency still exists, power is restored to this grid but then the next grid in the sequence is blacked out, and so on, until the situation is stabilized — the blackout thus "rolls" from one grid to the next.

In California, each customer's electric bill includes the number of the power grid (from 1 to 14) that customer belongs to; this gives customers at least some advance notice of when their electricity might be turned off in the event of a Stage 3 emergency. The grids are set up in such a manner as to ensure that a large percentage of customers in the same neighborhood would not be blacked out concurrently, which could invite looting and other related problems. Normal electricity customers can fall within the areas reserved for emergency use (if they are near a hospital or other critical infrastructure), in which case their electric bill will indicate a power grid of 99 and they will not be affected by rolling blackouts.


In many East Coast states (such as New York State and New Jersey), "brownouts" rather than rolling blackouts are implemented during power emergencies: In this scenario, instead of the power being cut off altogether to a certain percentage of customers, the voltage is reduced by a certain percentage to all customers — the resulting dimming of electric lights being the origin of the term "brownout." Brownouts can cause significant damage to unprotected electronic equipment, but usually have no effect (other than reduced performance) on incandescent lights or some types of motors.

Republic of Ireland

On several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s trade union strikes in Ireland's power utility, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) led to rolling blackouts. However, rolling blackouts have not occurred for this reason since 1991. For such eventualities, the ESB have a "zone rota" system in place. The country is divided into "regions" which in turn are subdivided into "zones", referred to by the letter codes A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. During periods when blackouts may occur, advertisements are placed in the national newspapers informing customers which region and zone they are in, and at what times of the day they have a high, moderate or low risk of supply interruption. (Customers fortunate enough to live close to a hospital may find they are on a "priority line" and don't lose power at all). The authorities appeal to the public to conserve electricity (especially during hours of peak demand); however, if and when electricity demand exceeds available supply, supply is cut in some or all of the "high risk" zones. If there is still a shortfall once all the high risk zones have had power cut, then the "moderate risk" zones start experiencing power cuts. The level of risk in each zone changes every three hours moving from "Low" to "Moderate" to "High" and back to "Low".

United Kingdom

The Three-Day Week of January to March 1974, introduced to limit electricity consumption, and thus conserve coal supplies which were severely reduced due to industrial action, meant that non-essential commercial users were only allowed to consume electricity for three days each week. Home electricity supplies were also limited in some areas.

outh Africa

Due to the South African government denying funding to EskomSouth Africa's national electricity producer – for expansion, the capacity of the nation's electricity grid has not kept up with demand.

In 1998, the Department of Minerals and Energy released a detailed energy review. It explicitly warned that unless "timely steps were taken to ensure that demand does not exceed available supply capacity", generating capacity would reach its limit by 2007. [ Mail and Guardian - Govt chose guns over power stations] ]

Instead of ensuring the development of the required infrastructure, the government had instructed Eskom to stop building power stations in the vain hope that the deregulation of power generation would encourage private investors to build the stations.

From December 2005 until February 2006, rolling blackouts were implemented in Cape Town and other areas of the Western Cape. This was the result of one of two reactors at the Koeberg nuclear power station being unavailable for this period, with the transmission lines from the coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga having insufficient capacity to make up the shortfall. These blackouts and the accompanying brouhaha in the media resulted in Eskom and the government announcing a number of plans for new power stations, and Eskom started returning mothballed power stations to service. However, it is expected that the supply constraints will last for a number of years.

"There is no crisis ... We shouldn't frighten ourselves too much ... We shouldn't be [sending out] threats to local and foreign investors that something disastrous is going to happen with regard to energy and therefore, they must be on their toes," the country's president Thabo Mbeki had said at the time.

In October 2007, rolling blackouts were implemented in many parts of the country, including the executive capital city, Pretoria, and the biggest city and economic hub, Johannesburg. These blackouts would normally last two to four hours.

With no short- or medium-term plan in sight, Eskom has, in January 2008, warned the public that the country's electricity demand will exceed the supply until 2013 (when new power stations can be brought online). Until then, large parts of the country will experience continual blackouts. The situation has already had a devastating effect on the South African economy, and has been labeled as a "national crisis". As of 25 January 2008, several mines had to suspend mining operations, with combined losses amounting to greater than R250m per day - an unsustainable predicament which has seen mines threaten to close operations and lay off large numbers of staff. The power crisis has also had devastating effects on foreign investment, and brought into doubt the country's ability to effectively host the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. Opposition parties have called for the situation to be officially declared a disaster, in an attempt to improve the management of the situation under the country's disaster management laws.

Although Eskom and the municipalities involved in implementing the blackouts make some attempt to provide schedules, very often the information is incorrect or is only provided after the blackout has started. A number of deaths resulted from power to hospitals being cut in the Cape Town blackouts in 2006Fact|date=February 2008, with certain hospitals not having adequate backup facilities. As a result, an agreement was reached to not cut power to hospitals. However, during the blackouts in Pretoria in October 2007, the City of Tshwane municipality cut power to areas including hospitals.

The economic effects of the power crisis are felt most by small business institutions and households, who are generally unable to afford the expensive power-generating equipment required to generate their own power. Road traffic in the already-gridlocked cities have reached record levels of congestion due to out-of-service traffic lights and poorly maintained road surfaces.

As from the 5th of May 2008, there will no longer be any pre-emptive loadshedding in South Africa.


In January 2008 Tajikistan faced its coldest winter in 50 years, and the country's energy grid began to fail. By February 2008 Tajikstan's energy grid was near collapse and there were blackouts in most of the country. Hospitals throughout the country were on limited electricity use, and nurses and doctors were forced to keep newborn babies warm with hot water bottles. There were reports of newborns freezing to death. The UN reported that with so much energy required to keep warm there was a danger of people starving to death.


During the summer months, extreme load shedding begins due to a shortage of reserve water in the country's main dams, which is due to an aging electrical system that is put under massive stress during the hot summer days. In turn, the winter extreme load shedding begins again due to restrictions placed by the Indus River Association and because of cold weather in the mountain tributaries feeding the rivers.Pakistan sees load shedding occur on a daily basis, with no electricity for approximately 6-7 hours per day. They are now investing in new power stations and hope that by 2011, load shedding will be a thing of the past.


Kathmandu, faced with an influx of rural migrants and rising energy demands, faces load-shedding even during the monsoon when the rains fill the water reservoirs where electricity is generated. During the dry winter months, electricity was cut up to six hours per day, leading to disruption of the economy. In the rest of the country, electrification has occurred patchily, although in some small villages a small hydropower project set up locally may function more reliably than the power supply of the capital city.


Due to the weak infrastructure of power distribution combined with high energy use for air conditioning and emerging technology, major cities in Iran are subject to rolling blackouts. They generally occur from 10:00 AM until 1:00 PM and/or late at night so that the citizens are not awake during the blackout.Occasional blackouts began approximately 2 years ago, and their frequency has increased to 2 per day.



Maharashtra, once considered to be the most progressive state in India is undergoing a very severe energy crisis since 2004 as a result of short sighted government policies, which have not provided for an increase in the electricity demand by domestic and industrial consumers alike. Rural areas experience a minimum of 14 hours rolling blackouts every day. Urban areas, except Mumbai, witness 6 to 8 hours rolling blackouts every day.Even as the state reels under this power crisis, there are no power projects in the pipeline. Industries face a rolling blackout for an unprecedented 48 hours at a stretch.


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