Lights out in San Diego: A Case to Reexamine the Future of our Grid

The U.S. enjoys some of the most affordable and reliable electricity in the world. This has largely been enabled by the electricity grid (the largest man-made machine in the human history), which provides power to our schools, hospitals and homes.

But cracks in this mammoth infrastructure are starting to form. Beginning at 3:40 p.m. on Sept. 8th, San Diego experienced one of its worst blackouts in recent history, bringing the city to a halt.

Nearly 1.4 million residents went without power for 12 hours, flights were canceled, sewage pumps stopped working, and people had to be rescued from stuck elevators. Mike Niggli, president and COO of San Diego Gas & Electric, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he hadn’t experienced this type of blackout in 40 years.

The damage was not limited to San Diego, affecting people throughout Southern California, Arizona, and even parts of Mexico, affecting nearly 6 million people.

What could cause a blackout of this magnitude? The short answer: a single person.

On Sept. 8th, a maintenance worker at the North Gila substation, near Yuma, Arizona was performing routine maintenance at a substation. However, the equipment short-circuited and caused an adjacent 500 kV transmission line to trip. Resulting voltage fluctuations from the accident caused many of San Diego’s substations and power plants to shut down, including the 2,200 MW San Onofre nuclear power plant. Thus, without access to Arizona’s power generators and with the loss of its own behemoth of a power plant, San Diego and the surrounding area ultimately succumbed.

Over the last century, cities have prospered when connected to the power-providing veins of the grid. However, what was once a source of prosperity is now an enormous economic liability—where one person’s error can carry a price tag surpassing $100 million, the estimated costs of the blackout for the San Diego region alone, according to a report by the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been tasked to find the cause of cascading failure. Blame-game aside, it should be noted that this is not an isolated case; in Ohio in 2003, wayward branches that snagged nearby power lines caused a similar cascade of blackouts for more than 50 million people as far away as New York City.

These occurrences highlight the reality that our electric grid is vulnerable and in sore need of attention. But, while an increasingly fragile grid is today’s reality, it does not have to be tomorrow’s burden.

Rather than focus on the threats our current infrastructure faces, we have an opportunity to rethink the electricity system. It’s becoming more and more obvious that it’s much less a question of whether to upgrade and improve the system. It’s more likely about determining when and how.

Fortunately, there is a new landscape of technological investment and deployment that offers much richer and more dynamic options than ever before, leading to a variety of potential scenarios for our electricity future—in how we generate, transmit and manage energy.

In Reinventing Fire, slated for release this fall, Rocky Mountain Institute outlines potential scenarios for a more secure, resilient and customer-oriented electric system powered by efficiency and renewables. For instance, by transforming the grid into a network of interconnected microgrids, the vulnerabilities of the transmission system are reduced. Large-scale cascading grid failures would be much less likely or damaging.

Luckily, in the San Diego blackout, no one was injured badly. But this should serve as a reminder and warning; a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. To further this discussion, a RMI team will document successful case studies of microgrids to determine their potential role in improving the reliability of the grid. First on the list: the University of California San Diego’s campus, which is at the heart of the blackout—and which successfully helped the campus ride through the event.

What lessons would you draw from this experience?