More thoughts on the 2011 San Diego Black-Out

by on September 10, 2011 · 37 comments

in Energy, Popular, San Diego

By John Lawrence / Will Blog for Food / Sept 10, 2011

All of San Diego County as well as some parts of Orange County, Arizona and Mexico experienced a blackout for about 12 hours Thursday, September 8, 2011, one of the hottest days of the year although the blackout had nothing to do with air conditioning overload or any other kind of overload to the system.

It was all caused by some electric company employee in Yuma, Arizona tripping the wrong switch accidentally or replacing defective monitoring equipment depending on which story you want to believe.

Just think what could happen if someone such as a terrorist deliberately and determinedly wanted to cause harm to the six million people who were affected by the blackout!

This blackout should be considered a dry run to what might happen if there were a major emergency, an actual cutting of the 500,000 volt transmission line between Yuma and San Diego. How easy would it be for someone to merely bomb one of the transmission towers in some remote area and bring the whole system down not to be recovered so easily as merely turning the power back on which is all San Diego Gas and Electric had to end up doing. Even that took them 12 hours!

This power outage should be considered a dry run for such a terror attack or other major emergency, and, obviously, the system failed catastrophically for little reason. The entire electrical grid is in dire need of being overhauled and redesigned so that this type of failure caused by one person doesn’t happen again.

There is no reason for a local power outage to be transmitted over the entire system. That’s totally ridiculous and unnecessary. There should be enough failsafe built into the system such that local failures are confined to local areas.

This is a huge failure of centralized power generation and transmission. Instead the power grid needs to be redesigned as a distributed system. Power generated locally including solar or wind power should be able to power local needs without the possibility of being shut down by a systemic event. Distributed power generation rather than centralized power generation is the key.

I have blogged previously  about the need for local power generation by means of solar panels on rooftops which could provide for local needs. This is more efficient because a huge amount of power is needlessly lost on transmission lines hauling electricity from the point where it’s generated to the point where it’s needed.

Government needs to allow local rooftop generation to be sold onto the grid by home and business owners as was done in Germany, and the grid to be smart enough to isolate local areas from systemic failures. This also distributes the profits freom power generation to a larger group of people which is precisely why the power companies don’t want it to be allowed and instruct their lobbyists accordingly

The other lesson to be learned is that San Diego County was totally unprepared for this relatively benign disaster compared to the weather disasters experienced in other parts of the country. It was a totally self-inflicted wound as the result of the mistake of one person which is almost unbelievable.

Here are some of the scary scenarios that resulted.

  • People were trapped in elevators.
  • Most gas stations shut down so that people trying to get home ran out of gas on the freeways contributing to huge traffic jams.
  • Ambulances ran out of fuel.
  • Cell phones and landlines went dead.
  • All supermarkets and grocery stores closed making it impossible to buy ice, water or even food.
  • Restaurants closed even fast food places.
  • Sewage pumps failed causing contamination of drinking water.
  • People confined to their homes without air conditioning, the ability to cook, without the ability to make contact with family or friends, with the contents of their refrigerators spoiling were the lucky ones compared to people stranded on the freeways.

 Here’s what needs to be done.

BACKUP GENERATORS. For the lack of backup generators, gas stations closed, super markets and grocery stores closed. ATMs shut down. Even water machines didn’t work. The only facilities that continued to operate successfully were the hospitals that had backup generators.

It needs to be mandated or otherwise encouraged that at least some strategic services in each neighborhood have backup generators in the event that some huge catastrophe such as this need not happen again. It could even be an advertising promotion for some supermarkets and service stations that their facility is “disaster ready” and would continue to function in the event of a power outage. They could even have a little logo posted at their site that they were “disaster ready.”

The same goes for phone service.Their facilities should be required to be operational in the event of a power outage. Such simple solutions as requiring ATMs and water dispensing machines to not be grid electricity dependent would go a long way. How about solar panel backup for ATMs and water machines not to mention traffic lights?!?

This whole disaster dry run, I imagine, was very educational for potential terrorists. The only thing needed to wreak havoc on and shut down an entire region affecting millions of people was simply blowing up one transmission tower thus cutting the Yuma to San Diego Powerlink. That would have accomplished the same thing as throwing a switch turning off the power.

The fact that the power line between Yuma, Arizona and San Diego County was effectively cut caused the San Onofre nuclear generating station, another source of local power, to shut down. Why? It could have continued to function supplying electricity to San Diego County. Instead it effectively said, “Well if Yuma isn’t going to provide electricity, neither will I.” At the time it was most critically needed, it shut down.

Isn’t this a complete design failure of the electrical grid? Clearly, the electrical grid, a major component of infrastructure needs to be totally redesigned for the 21st century so that in the event of a major catastrophe, vital services are not completely cut off leaving millions of people to fend for themselves. This should be a lesson to the entire nation!

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar mr fresh September 10, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I hear the employee who is allegedly responsible for the blackout is one Homer Simpson, last seen hiding in back of a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop in Northern Arizona.

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avatar Sunshine September 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Doh!

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avatar Goatskull September 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Mmmm……..d-o-n-u-t.

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avatar gene September 10, 2011 at 1:36 pm

What a stupid article. Does this writer even have a brain? Where is the editor?
A power outage is a power outage and that´s all it is.

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avatar sillysandiego September 10, 2011 at 5:48 pm

seriously…whoever wrote this article certainly listened to the ole political saying, “never waste a good crisis”…file this under op-ed and i doubt anyone will even give you food to blog considering this sample

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avatar Yoli September 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Not when you have two sons at home that are ventilator dependent.

But at least fire station where so heplful and offer us to stay there the whole night.Hospital were crowded and imposible to get there.

So I think this article is at least a RED light to get prepared.

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avatar Bob September 10, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Dude ur a dumb ass. Where you there? No so shut the hell up. Everything he said was true. Try watching the news sometime. That “little powerout” had almost 4 million people without electricity.

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avatar Tom Small September 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I feel the Electric Utility Industry is trying hard to prevent the types of outages experienced in Calif. The enviromental and local planning groups need to work together to assist the Utilities in the permitting and construction of new ( additional ) high voltage power lines.

I understand many new or planned power lines are stalled for envioromental reasons and considerations.

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avatar Sunshine September 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

it should happen once a month. the lack of electric vibration, the quiet hush in the village, the spontaneous gatherings of friends/neighbors, the magnificent view of the night sky ~ all made for a divine evening. a real look back to the days before electricity ruled our every decision.

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avatar butch September 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Two things — First, San Onofre goes offline in a loss of power event in order to allow the reactor and turbine to spin down/cool down without damage:

“3.3 Loss of Offsite Power Events Loss of Offsite Power Events are typically caused (References 3, 7) by external events such as lightning strikes, hurricanes, and transmission line faults that occur beyond the plant switchyard. A loss of offsite power causes the sudden interruption of normal power to all inplant
loads such as pumps, and for most reactor types causes the control rods to insert
independent of any control or protective system actions. All nuclear power plants are designed to cope with loss of offsite power by tripping the reactor and turbine, attempting to switch to an alternate offsite power source and if this fails
starting emergency onsite diesel generators to provide heat removal until normal power is restored.” (copied from here: ) good paper to help understand the intricacies of our power grid. Granted, it doesn’t make much sense to have one of our main sources of power shut off when we need it most, but its better than causing damage to their turbines or worse, the reactors.

The second thing is that the sewage pump failure isn’t what has caused the drinking water boil alert. The sewage pump failure caused the beaches to be contaminated, but our drinking water doesn’t come from the beach. The boil water alert was caused by the failure of water pumps which supply potable water to the system. Areas and homes higher than the pump stations can than backfeed into the potable water systems in those areas, filling the system with potentially contaminated water.

Other than that, good article.

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avatar Bob Steele September 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm

If you are producing megawatts of electricity why do you need oofsite power?

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avatar annagrace September 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I think many of us, upon learning how extensive the blackout was, became anxious about a terrorist attack. That concern was dispelled pretty quickly. While I sat out on the porch that night, I imagined a number of scenarios- a powerful earthquake at the top of the list- that could cause an extended outage. I thought about all those people left stranded for so long after Katrina. The cause of an extended and extensive outage takes a back seat to my concerns about our ability to deal with them.
John is spot-on when he raises the issue of our aging electrical infrastructure and lack of alternative sources of energy, whether they are back up generators, solar panels or wind turbines. We really need to be able to produce a significant portion of our own electricity locally.
I think it is a terrific idea for neighborhoods to have a designated gas station, store, ATM with back up electrical generation capabilities. Good article, John.

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avatar Luna Simone September 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm

The writer of this article does not get out much. The conclusions you reach are ridiculous and not well thought out.

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avatar The Bearded Obecian September 10, 2011 at 5:29 pm

As per some of the scary scenarios, a number of stores were open and sold ice while it lasted; gas worked, so cooking was certainly possible; text messages could be sent; no need for food to spoil if you didn’t open the fridge; and some restaurants were open.

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avatar Bob September 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Only like 5 gas stations in the county were open. And in some places it got up to 105 degrees and without ac thats hot. You also had to have cash to buy ice which went very fast.

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avatar Debbie September 11, 2011 at 9:08 am

“LIFE” was interrupted….and we the people had no control over it. If the power outage lasted longer there would be alot more hootin’ and hollerin’. In the meantime, LIFE did change and the situation got most people to talk about the goods and the bads and the what ifs.

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avatar John Wheeler September 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm

All the wind turbines and solar panels in America would not have prevented the San Diego blackout. These are intermittent and unreliable. On Thursday afternoon the wind was blowing about 8 mph – barely reaching the minimum wind speed at which wind turbines will work. Skies were partly cloudy so solar panels would have operated at partial capacity for a couple of hours, then would have shut down completely as the sun lowered in the sky.

The only real solution is for California to stop relying so heavily on imported electricity. That means building coal, gas or nuclear plants closer to the load – near the cities. That way when a transmission system disruption happens the region can isolate itself from the troubled part of the grid and continue to run on its own power plants.

I wrote more about this here http://thisweekinnuclear.com/?p=1354

John Wheeler
This Week in Nuclear

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avatar karl September 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Obviously very little thought to this blog…

Many stores did stay open, buy the quickly ran out of ice and such because everyone was trying to buy it.
ARMs having power is not going to do any good unless the entire line of communications to the bank processing also has power. Data lines can and were affected by the loss of power as well.
Though having back up generators is a good idea for many places, you are going to force business to spend money to buy back up generators, when many of them are struggling as it is?

Cell phones and land lines dis not go dead, there was an overload causes by suck a large scale of people trying to reach other people.

Take some responsibility for yourself… Don’t let your gas tank het too low and always have some cash on hand.

Many traffic lights were still working actually. So evidently that is already being done. I realize you want it all NOW, but that is not realistic.

If a business wants to invest to create a back up power source for in case of this type of situation, it might not be a bad idea… But most restaurants are not going to stay open in this type of situation. Once it gets dark, the security risks are too great. Police are dealing with other emergencies and every thing has to be done by cash. (even though I heard some places breaking out the old school credit card imprint machine.) Of course if they did implement tour ideas you next blog after the next major event would moat likely be against the horrible businesses that kept their employees working instead of allowing them to go make sure their family is ok…

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avatar Carla September 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Really? A blackout that big could be caused by tripping ONE switch? Sounds like bullshit to me…..

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avatar Bob Steele September 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm

What good is a generating facility that requires offsite power to be supplied. If you are making electricity why do you need electricity? Perhaps at the start of the cycle you need input, but after that you got megawatts. None of you seems to have a clue and its a mystery to me.

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avatar butch September 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Basically, the reactor coolant pumps require so much power to run (about 69KV) that the plant goes into self protection mode. If the plant was to add power to the grid while the grid was in the throes of instability, there is the possibility that the plant couldn’t produce enough power to run the reactor coolant pumps, which would be bad.

I don’t disagree with you the it seems counterintuitive, but it is a failsafe designed into the system. Personally, I would rather have the plant trip offline in this situation than to risk having an issue like what happened in Fukushima.

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avatar JEC September 11, 2011 at 9:40 am

Tom Smalls is using calm reason; a good start. Let’s consider – our system (SDG&E) uses what’s called centralized power production – a few very large power plants with power transmitted hundreds of miles over aluminum wire contributing to a measurable amount of power loss. Let’s consider Germany’s system. A dozen years ago Germany decided the electricity system is as important as water system and should be designed accordingly. Germany embraced de-centralized power production. Each cell is designed to stand alone if need be and uses the most extensive array of solar panels in the world. No cascading across a national grid. Germany’s network is durable and resilent; ours is fragile and costly. Question – shall we adapt? Or not?

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avatar Debbie September 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

Along the lines of “power” here is an interesting sight

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avatar politicky September 11, 2011 at 4:58 pm

“Just think what could happen if someone such as a terrorist deliberately and determinedly wanted to cause harm to the six million people who were affected by the blackout!”

Yeah, I did. Years ago, this was a reminder to keep a few more things on hand beause I got lazy.

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avatar Gary Ghirardi September 12, 2011 at 4:52 am

A reminder of what happened when the California Public Utility Commission ceases to function for the public common under the pressure and corruption of Corporate Republican Shill Politicians: The California Energy Crisis of 2001

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avatar RB September 12, 2011 at 8:50 am

We had a Senate, House and Governor controlled by Democrats, as I remember.
We did not build power plants as the population increased and became dependent upon power generated in other state. California’s economy model no longer works and this was the first warning of the states long term decline.

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avatar Gary Ghirardi September 13, 2011 at 9:57 am

The energy companies at that time and this, were for profit enterprises. What held them in check were regulations. A more logical idea of “public utilities” is that certain basic needs be fulfilled outside the marketplace thus protecting the citizenry from corporate predation. At the time of the deregulation being sold to the California Public prior to the Enron robbery of California’s surplus, the argument was that a deregulated energy market would foster competition among the providers thus reducing costs to the consumer. Yeah, right! How many times have we been sold that lie. When corporations push for legislation, it is to legitimize their privately hatched schemes to cooperate to increase the profits of an industry. Some resources need to be held by the citizenry to maintain the sovereignty of the people in their own communities. This, in ,my book, includes water, electric, schools, prisons, judicial, libraries, parks and beaches. If this seems antiquated to some of you, then witness how far the rhetoric of “Too Much Government” has warped better judgment. As we witness Federal Government bailouts of Wall Street and an ever increasing military and security industry funded on the increasing debt of the public, talk to me about dangers of socialism and an impeded business climate in California by too much taxation.

California’s economic model is another subject.

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avatar RB September 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

Only the government would be stupid enough to deregulate the price of electricity while restricting the supply of new generation through environmental lawsuits and government regulation. A high school economic student could predict a price increase when demand is increasing and supply is held constant or cut by suppliers outside the state. Also, Electrical rates will be going up dramatically over the next couple of years with AB32 and government regulation, not due to utility profits.

As for resources held by citizens and government, you need to look at your water bill. Private industries could never get away with the price increases inflicted upon the citizen rate holders by these government robber barons.

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avatar Gary Ghirardi September 15, 2011 at 5:45 am

Private companies are under the demand of their stock holders to increase profits while government held utilities are not. The efficiency of any operation is ultimately based on its accountability to others. How might we hold private companies accountable for their internal policies and demand transparency? I live in a country where many industries have been purchased out from under the private sector in order to insure supply and sovereignty of natural resources to the public. They were, previously, being used politically, by the owners, to put hardship on a government they did not approve of. Now there has been created a baseline of supply against demand. It is not perfect, but a step in the direction to serve the greater public good. These enterprises are running at a deficit but the government can afford the loss so the greater good is subsidized by other natural resources. This will not fly in the U.S.A. when people have been inculcated in to corporatist think, that everything has to deliver a profit. Sometimes the profit is healthy citizens who feel like the society actually cares what happens to them.

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avatar RB September 15, 2011 at 6:41 am

Please name this wonderful country. Perhaps when us in the U.S. see this paradise of productivity and their higher standard of living directed by a transparent government, we would change.

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avatar Gary Ghirardi September 15, 2011 at 11:55 am

RB – when 80 percent of your population was poor because you were not garnering the lions share of profits from your major export commodity, called petroleum, then it was not about standard of living…it was about resource colonization. Now the equation has changed. The bottom 80% living in poverty has been decreased to 34%. This happened by retaining the bulk of the profits. It is not a contest RB. It is the real lives of people. You have the reference of a country that consumed 25% of the worlds resources representing 5% of the worlds population. If you wish to compare this as evidence of the success of the U.S. as a model of productivity be careful that you are not self deluded that this did not happen at the expense of other countries under conditions that could easily be defined as coercion. Hint: It is not Nigeria or Iraq or Libya though it could be visited by similar characterizations soon enough by western media sources and for similar goals; spreading democracy. And another hint; the country is very flawed, struggles with endemic corruption, and suffers the worse inflation despite government currency controls but mostly due to an import economy that sublimated the indigenous production of basic needs like agriculture to lucrative financial monopolies protected by former governments and trading partners.

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avatar RB September 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Sorry, but it sound like any one of many socialist countries.

I am also sorry you have such a negative opinion of the U.S.
Perhaps, our funding of the U.N., IMF and World Bank has not helped your country. Perhaps, our discoveries in medicine and science are not used in your country. But I would suggest that the advances in technology, medicine and science made in the U.S. has improved the conditions for everyone on the plant.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_discoveries

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avatar Gary Ghirardi September 16, 2011 at 9:22 am

I don’t set out to be negative but have an interest and the reference for political history. My view of of U.S. political and financial power and its political organs is informed by that history. Advances in science are not without merit but do not justify cultural malaise. Americans need to face up to what they had and how they got there and decide if they are going to remake themselves as citizens of the world rather than an island of privilege which has been the case for the last 60 years. It is time.

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avatar Outlaw September 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

Wasn’t there another one off Ivy Street in San Diego?

I didn’t catch it all, but I heard that one of the Airliners flew too low, and it snapped a power line.

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avatar Alpine September 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

We lose power in the east county somewhat frequently. So to that point we have a portable generator that we can hook up and run critical systems in the house. So while the rest of San Diego urbanites ran around in a panic mode trying to get batteries and ice, we had lights, radio, refrigeration, cooling fans. This was no more than a moderate inconvenience. The biggest pain was just getting home.

This event was a text book cascade failure of a grid system operating on the edge. The system did what it was design to do, self protect. We had minimal local generation on line, the majority of the power was being supplied by the grid, at the cheapest price.

Are there lessons to be learned, oh ya, personal and public. One of the biggest problems was the traffic lights. They all should have at least a 4 hour backup capability. However, implementation of such will not be cheap.

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avatar annagrace September 13, 2011 at 9:04 am

If you receive food stamps and lost perishable food in the outage which you bought with your allotment, you can submit a claim to the county for reimbursement. Thanks to Voice of San Diego for the info. Details on how to submit a claim here:
http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/survival/article_c2d4d4e6-dda6-11e0-85b2-001cc4c03286.html

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avatar Shirley Walker September 16, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I am totally disabled by advanced MS. My hospital bed was in a sitting position at 3:15 when the power went off. It was 98 degrees in the shade of my front porch. It was an hour before I could reach a caregiver to use a manual lift to get me off my bed. I was put on my wheelchair to spend the duraqtion of the outage. By night fall the temperature dropped to 60 and I am still ill with a head cold. My care giver was abloe to get back to me at 5am and put me to bed though the bed had to be lowered by a manual crank. Pe0ple with MS are severly affected by heat and have a compromised immune system. I am trying to find help getting help to get qa generater. Disabilit5y is not much money.

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