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Want To Blame State's Largest Power Outage Ever on One Worker? Not So Fast

The moon over a darkened San Diego (Photo by johnashworth via
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When an electrical outage hit San Diego Thursday night, the rides at Sea World froze, everyone lost refrigerated food, sewage flowed into the ocean — and one utility worker in Arizona bore the brunt of the blame.

That's not fair, say ratepayers advocates.

"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," said Michael Shames, executive director of the advocacy group, Utility Consumers' Action Network.

Blaming the Arizona utility worker is like overlooking the role of wooden buildings and inadequate firefighting protection in Chicago's 1871 fire, Shames says, and blaming the whole thing on Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

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If one utility worker's mistake can shut down a wide swath of the Southwest, that says more about our delicate, outdated power grid than the worker, at a time when experts say it is supposed to be improving:

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.

Federal regulators are looking into what went wrong that day, and the power companies could be fined $1 million per day for every violation. (The whole power outage was estimated to cost $100 million).

One of the question they have is why those safeguards to keep power flowing worked at first and then failed miserably. There was a 10-minute gap between when the power failed and customers lost electricity.

Niggli compared the power grid to a quiet pond at a news conference: "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."

That's even truer than it was in years past, according to Eilyan Bitar, a professor at Cornell University, who's working to develop smarter grid technology.

The system is operating with less margin for error than ever before, at the edges of its stability limits, he said. “Out of all the major blackouts that have happened in the past 50 or 60 years, the majority have occurred in the past 10 or 12 years.”