There’s a natural question that follows from the massive blackouts in India this week: Could it happen here?

The far-too-short answer is yes. It could happen here. But it is very, very unlikely — at least on that scale.

A blackout in Chicago. (Photo by infiniteexpanse.)

Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out, has a wonderful post at Boing Boing answering this specific question. I strongly recommend you go read it in full.

Her piece is predicated on an assessment of the massive 2003 blackout that affected much of the Northeast. How’d that happen? What could have prevented it? Are those precautions now in place? The 2003 blackout, Koerth-Baker notes, was caused by a cascade of small problems, starting, in part, with the failure of a power company to sufficiently trim trees near its lines. (An untrimmed tree, she notes, can yield $1 million in fines.) Because of this maintenance failure, six transmission lines went down in a row.

In 2003, the people trying to stop the blackout didn’t have a clear view of it. Partly, that had to do with the faulty software program that wasn’t turned back on and the alarm system failure that apparently went unnoticed. But it was also just how the grid worked. The systems in place to tell grid controllers what the electrons were doing moved a lot more slowly than the electrons themselves.