Power outage

Vehicle lights provide the only illumination during the 2009 Ecuador electricity crisis

A power outage (also called a power cut, a power out, a power blackout, power failure or a blackout) is the loss of the electrical power network supply to an end user.

There are many causes of power failures in an electricity network. Examples of these causes include faults at power stations, damage to electric transmission lines, substations or other parts of the distribution system, a short circuit, cascading failure, fuse or circuit breaker operation.

Power failures are particularly critical at sites where the environment and public safety are at risk. Institutions such as hospitals, sewage treatment plants and mines, will usually have backup power sources such as standby generators, which will automatically start up when electrical power is lost. Other critical systems, such as telecommunication, are also required to have emergency power. The battery room of a telephone exchange usually has arrays of lead–acid batteries for backup and also a socket for connecting a generator during extended periods of outage.

Types of power outage

Transient fault

Power outages are categorized into three different phenomena, relating to the duration and effect of the outage:

  • A permanent fault is a massive loss of power typically caused by a fault on a power line. Power is automatically restored once the fault is cleared.
  • A brownout is a drop in voltage in an electrical power supply. The term brownout comes from the dimming experienced by lighting when the voltage sags. Brownouts can cause poor performance of equipment or even incorrect operation.
  • A blackout is the total loss of power to an area and is the most severe form of power outage that can occur. Blackouts which result from or result in power stations tripping are particularly difficult to recover from quickly. Outages may last from a few minutes to a few weeks depending on the nature of the blackout and the configuration of the electrical network.

Rolling blackouts occur when demand for electricity exceeds supply, and allow some customers to receive power at the required voltage at the expense of other customers who get no power at all. They are a common occurrence in developing countries, and may be scheduled in advance or occur without warning. They have also occurred in developed countries, for example in the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001, when government deregulation destabilized the wholesale electricity market. Blackouts are also used as a public safety measure, such as to prevent a gas leak from catching fire (for example, power was cut to several towns in response to the Merrimack Valley gas explosions), or to prevent wildfires around poorly maintained transmission lines (such as during the 2019 California power shutoffs).