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Power Failure Sparks Investigation

Power Failure Sparks Investigation

GLORIA PENNER (Host): A short but massive power outage occurred in the San Diego region last week. An investigation is underway to determine how the blackout happened. Amita Sharma joins me now with more on the story. Welcome, Amita.

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS News): Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: How are California grid operators explaining last week’s blackout?

SHARMA: Well, the grid operators are called the California Independent System Operators. And this week they came out and they said they made a mistake when they ordered the Otay power plant to be shut down shortly after midnight last Thursday, which caused the 45-minute power outage. Now understand, this order came at a time when all of the four other power plants that supply electricity to this region were offline or sharply curtailed. The ISO says it’s conducting a review and it has reassigned workers in the control room - presumably where the decision was made to shut down that power plant, pending that review.

PENNER: So who was actually affected by this power outage?

SHARMA: Well almost 300,000 residents – or 300,000 homes and businesses in the San Diego region as well as southern Orange County were affected.

PENNER: So it sounds like it was preventable.

SHARMA: Well that is the question, isn’t it? Because at this point we just don’t know since so little information has come out. Specifically, we don't know who ordered the shutdown of that final power plant when the four other power plants were already offline. We don't know whether the decision was made by one person, or a group of people. And it’s supposed to be made by a team according to the rules. We don't know if there are flags within the system that go up and say, “Hey look! Cal-ISO, don’t shut down this power plant.” Because it’s the last one. All of the others are offline. We don't know if the system is automated or computerized. So hopefully we’ll get those answers.

PENNER: But what we do know is that the ISO grid manager blamed human error. And he apologized.

SHARMA: He apologized, but we don’t know whether there was mechanical error in addition to human error.

PENNER: Alright, at this point Senator Chris Kehoe is considering calling a legislative hearing to look into it. Is that really necessary? I mean, if we already know it was human error?

SHARMA: Well, as I said, we don't know a lot of the answers at this point. But the other part of this is it happened while most people were asleep. So it might have been inconvenient for some people, but had it happened during the day it could have been a disturbance to the economy. It could have been hugely inconvenient to people and it could have been dangerous. So, you know, it is important to know how this happened.

PENNER: But to put it into context, some background on the Independent Service Operators. Sounds as though there's a lot of power there.

SHARMA: Well the California Independent – no pun intended – the California Independent System Operator was created in 1996 when the power market was deregulated. There is a lot of mystery surrounding this entity. They're private. A lot of people say they're not accountable to anyone. So we don't know a lot about them, but their main job is to make sure that there's enough electricity within the system to get to the state’s 30 million residents.

PENNER: And just very quickly, so what's happening with them as a result of this?

SHARMA: Well they're doing an internal review right now. The Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which is a watchdog group, is also doing what they call an event analysis. But they are relying on the ISO to provide information and data for that analysis.

PENNER: Thank you very much, Amita Sharma.

SHARMA: Thank you.