Southern California goes Dark

Here in San Diego, we recently suffered a massive power failure: the cascading blackout shut off electricity to five million people throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Orange County and northern Baja — with power out for twelve to twenty-four hours. The cause: a high voltage line from Arizona tripped out of service after a single employee performed routine maintenance.

The repercussions were widespread — two reactors at the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down, streets jammed as traffic signals failed, Lindbergh airport stopped service, schools, businesses and clinics closed. Untreated sewage spilled into lagoons and beaches as pumps shut off. Generators failed at local hospitals. In some areas, residents were asked to boil water. Restaurants and grocery stores tossed spoiled and perishable food. Motorists abandoned cars when filling stations were unable to pump gas. Communications were problematic, as phone and internet services failed.

Sometimes, the small things matter. This from an observant fellow during the Great San Diego Blackout: “when we lost power yesterday along with the rest of San Diego County. The electric eye-activated toilets and urinals in the new buildings were all nonfunctional, whereas the older models (with actual handles) in place in the older buildings worked fine. Exclusively installing toilets that don’t function without electricity in new buildings just seems like a bad idea.”

In the end, there were inconveniences and monetary losses for local businesses, but civilization didn’t fail. There were no reports of looting and communities banded together, sharing resources and information.

Certainly many homeowners will be inspired to stock up on emergency supplies: candles, flashlights, batteries, generators — and at least one corded phone in the house that will continue to operate during a blackout.

Inquiries have been launched to investigate the blackout and its repercussions. Most are caused by human error – this one set off by a maintenance project gone awry. We need an electrical system that is far more robust, with built-in redundancies – able to route around failures and recover more rapidly.

This was not an isolated case. Major power outages have doubled during the last ten years. When the Electric Power Research Institute recently analyzed America’s electric grid, they found an aging power transmission system desperately in need of modernization. Bill Richardson, secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, called America a superpower with a third-world grid. Many electrical transmission lines are outdated, and a substantial fraction of transformers are nearing their fifty year expected lifespan. Landowners routinely oppose new transmission lines in their neighborhoods.

America badly needs an updated smart grid, able to anticipate and accommodate peaks or sudden drops in electricity usage — able to isolate problems and redirect power, avoiding such rippling failures in the future. And yet, some fear that a smart grid could be more vulnerable to hackers – who could conceivably shut off power remotely. Enhanced, multi-layered security and robustness must be top goals for a reliable infrastructure to lead us into the twenty-first century.

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