It was a scary reminder of how fragile our power grid can be: while the cause of the power outage that started in Arizona and eventually affected over 5 million customers from San Diego to Palm Springs and Mexico is still under investigation, the early guess is that it was simple maintenance work responsible for the massive blackout. The outage started after an Arizona Public Service utility employee performed a procedure on a transmission line near Yuma, Arizona. The outage should have been contained to Arizona but instead, through a series of still unexplained failures, the blackout spread across the Southwest. San Diego’s airport shutdown for a period of time, the San Onofre nuclear power plant went offline (mostly as a precaution) and because of failures at two water treatment plants over two million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Pacific Ocean along San Diego’s coast. While civilization didn’t grind to a halt and there wasn’t panic in the streets, the blackout was a reminder of how fragile our power grid can be. This outage was caused by an accident but what about a sophisticated terrorist attack against the grid; how susceptible is the grid to computer hacking from a foreign enemy; what efforts are underway to modernize the grid and build in more redundant systems to keep a power failure on one area of the grid from spreading to entire regions? One energy expert commented that the United States is still “operating the most advanced economy in the world on 1960’s and ‘70’s technology.” Will the San Diego outage be a wake up call to get to work on the grid?
Steven Erie, director, Urban Studies & Planning program at UC San Diego; author of Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego