Blackout reveals a vulnerable power grid

High-voltage power lines.
High-voltage power lines.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Power is back on, but questions linger over how such a minor repair job could have caused an outage that blackened much of the south west.

Thursday's blackout had a ripple effect that caused gridlock on the freeways and sewage spills that closed beaches and contaminated drinking water. The outage also cost restaurants and markets thousands of dollars in food spoiled by lack of refrigeration.

The blackout, experts say, is a reminder that the nation's transmission lines remain all too vulnerable to cascading power failures.

"There are a lot of critical pieces of equipment on the system and we have less defense than we think," said Rich Sedano at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a utility industry think tank based in Montpelier, Vt.

There have been several similar failures in recent years. In 2003, a blackout knocked out power to 50 million people in the Midwest and the Northeast. And in 2005, a major outage struck the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

That same year, Congress required utilities to comply with federal reliability standards for the electricity grid, instead of self-regulation. Layers of safeguards and backups were intended to isolate problems and make sure the power keeps flowing.

But that didn't happen on Thursday.

The Arizona Public Service Co. worker was switching out a capacitor, which controls voltage levels, outside Yuma, Ariz., near the California border. Shortly after, a section of a major regional power line failed, eventually spreading trouble further down in California and later Mexico, officials said.

And the lights began to go out in a border region of roughly 6 million people.

Beyond traffic gridlock, two reactors at a nuclear power plant up the California coast went offline after losing electricity. More than 2 million gallons of sewage spilled into the water off the San Diego coastline.

The National University System Institute for Policy Research, estimates the outage cost the San Diego-area economy more than $100 million.

Many had to spend the night, on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border, struggling to fall asleep in the high temperatures.

Federal and state investigators are trying to determine what caused the blackout and how future problems can be prevented. If regulatory violations are found, the government could issue fines of up to $1 million per day for every violation, officials said.

Among the questions they will be asking is why the safeguards to keep power flowing appeared to work, at least at first. There was a roughly 10-minute gap between the time the power line failed and customers lost electricity, said Daniel Froetscher, vice president of energy delivery for Phoenix-based APS.

The line has been "solid, reliable" with no history of problems, Froetscher said.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. should have isolated the problem by shutting down the 500-kilovolt Southwest Powerlink as it did during 2007 wildfires, said Michael Shames, executive director of the advocacy group, Utility Consumers' Action Network.

"If a fire breaks out in the kitchen, the first thing you do is shut the door to the kitchen to stop it from spreading," he said.

He also questioned why the San Onofre nuclear power plant was forced to shut down, and why other back-up energy didn't kick in.

Shames said blaming the Arizona utility worker would be like overlooking the role of wooden buildings and inadequate firefighting protection in Chicago's 1871 fire.

"It's sort of like saying the main reason for the Great Chicago Fire was the cow. The cow started the fire by kicking over the lantern but that's not what caused it," he said.

Michael Niggli, SDG&E's president and chief operating officer, said the company had no time to shut down the line because it had no warning.

Niggli said automatic circuit-breakers at San Onofre prevented the blackout from spreading to Southern California Edison, which serves 14 million people in the Los Angeles area.

At a news conference Friday, Niggli compared the power grid to a quiet pond. "When somebody throws a rock in there, it causes ripples. Depending on how big that rock is, those ripples are going to affect everyone that's in that pond," he said.

Experts say the problem could have been made worse by the way power flows into California.

California imports huge amounts of power from Arizona and other states. When the voltage fluctuations caused the San Onofre nuclear station to shut down to protect itself, it deprived the grid of a huge source of California-generated power.

Normally, a loss of that power would result in more flowing from Arizona.

But that power was already off line, depriving the region of power.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.