AZ Error Causes Southwest Blackout

Monday, September 12, 2011 @ 05:09 PM gHale

One of the main focuses in the aftermath of the huge Southwest power outage late last week was how one mistake by a single Arizona Public Service Co. worker making a routine repair in Yuma, AZ, could cascade across the Southwest and black out San Diego and parts of Mexico.

That is what federal regulators are investigating in the aftermath of the Southwest power outage that left millions in the dark.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will work with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, to try to figure out what happened.

If there are any regulatory violations, the commission could issue fines of up to $1 million per day for every violation, said FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll. This inquiry is an effective way for us to protect consumers and ensure the reliability of the bulk power system, said FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

Thursday’s massive blackout lasted 15 hours and plunged up to 5 million customers in Orange County and San Diego, CA, western parts of Arizona and northern Mexico into darkness, paralyzing freeways, halting flights and closing schools.

San Diego Gas & Electric said Friday morning all its 1.4 million customers had power again after crews worked through the night to make emergency repairs following the outage.

The blackout also caused a sewage spill that closed some San Diego-area beaches. All public schools in the city closed Friday as well as local state universities and community colleges.

Officials warned the electrical grid was still fragile after the outage and asked residents and businesses to go easy on major appliances, such as air conditioners.

“Conservation will really help reduce the strain,” said Stephanie McCorkle at the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid.

Thursday’s outage raised new questions about the condition of the nation’s electricity grid. How could that one worker in Yuma, cause this cascading outage? Authorities asked.

“That work should not have caused this,” said Damon Gross, spokesman for the Phoenix-based Arizona Public Service Co.

The outage occurred after an electrical worker removed a piece of monitoring equipment at a power substation in southwest Arizona, APS officials said.

“This was not a deliberate act. The employee was just switching out a piece of equipment that was problematic,” said Daniel Froetscher, an APS vice president.

It’s possible that extreme heat also may have caused some problems with the transmission lines, said Mike Niggli, chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

“Why it became so widespread is what we are going to work with the other utilities to investigate because the system should have isolated itself,” he said. “It’s designed to protect itself.”

California public health officials in Sacramento even activated the state’s Joint Emergency Operations Center to assess the impact.

Two reactors at a nuclear power plant along the coast went offline after losing electricity, but officials said there was no danger to the public or workers.

The blackout extended south of the border to Tijuana, Mexicali and other cities in Mexico’s Baja California state, which connect to the U.S. power grid, Niggli said.

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