Blackout or Brownout: What’s the Difference?

Suddenly it’s dark. The light switch can be moved, but the room still doesn’t get light. The power is gone – from one second to the next. It would be the worst-case scenario for this winter: a large-scale, unforeseen power outage. There have been enough warnings of such a blackout in recent months. The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance still considers an interruption in the power supply to be “extremely unlikely”, as the authority said on its report Website writes.

The situation in the German power grid remains tense. Despite the all-clear from experts, some municipalities, cities and municipalities are preparing for emergency situations lasting several days. Meanwhile, France is even practicing for emergencies and is simulating a nationwide power failure on Friday. Recently, there has also been repeated discussion as to whether there could be a “brownout” this winter. But what is that? And what distinguishes it from the blackout? An overview.

What is a blackout?

To put it simply, a blackout is nothing more than an uncontrolled, unpredictable power failure. However, it is not to be compared with a power failure in the household, where a fuse in the electrical box suddenly blows out. Instead, a blackout leads to larger parts of the European interconnected grid or the entire grid failing, as the Federal Network Agency. So it has much larger dimensions.


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A blackout is triggered by disruptions in network operation. This means, for example, that certain network elements are damaged by natural disasters, terrorist attacks or human error and are therefore unable to function. It is therefore not an event that is caused by an undersupply of energy.

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What is a brownout?

A brownout is exactly the opposite of a blackout, namely a controlled power failure. It is limited in time and space. This means that a certain number of end customers will be disconnected from the power supply for a specified period of time in a conscious and controlled manner – mind you, not without being informed beforehand.

When might a brownout become necessary?

In fact, the question arises: Why would you want to turn off people’s electricity on purpose? But there are definitely situations in which this may be necessary. For example, when the demand for electricity is greater than the supply, the Federal Network Agency cites this as an example. In other words, when too little electricity is being produced – be it due to a lack of fuel for power plants or the unavailability of generation plants.

As long as there is a power shortage, end customers would take turns being disconnected from the supply. This is then referred to as a “rolling shutdown”. That means: First, one part of the city would have no electricity for a certain period of time, then another. The Federal Network Agency explains that the effects on individual regions should be kept as low as possible.

Matches are part of the basic equipment in the event of a power failure.

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In a brownout, demand is reduced until supply can completely cover demand again. “This is the only way to continue to ensure the stable and reliable supply of electricity,” says the authority.

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How long can a brownout last?

That regulates the Electricity Security Ordinance, EltSV for short. It says: “The shutdown must not exceed four hours and must be publicly announced immediately in a suitable manner.” The operating time between two closure times must not be shorter than the previous closure time. If the electricity has to be switched off several times, the network operators must draw up a schedule and publish it publicly.

How likely is a brownout in Germany?

“We expect short-term, so-called brownouts, rather than long-lasting, large-scale blackouts,” said Ralph Tiesler, head of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, in an interview with the in mid-November “World” said.

A little later, his authority had issued a clarification. Accordingly, the probability of regional and time-limited, forced shutdowns is considered “low”. “The electrical energy supply system is designed with multiple redundancies and has numerous safety mechanisms to stabilize the power grid in the event of disruptions.”

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