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Questions Remain A Year After The Big Blackout

A view of the city on Sept. 8, 2011, the night the lights went out.
A view of the city on Sept. 8, 2011, the night the lights went out.
Questions Remain A Year After The Big Blackout
GuestsStephanie Donovan, spokesperson for San Diego Gas and Electric KPBS investigative reporter Amita SharmaBill Powers, Energy engineer and consumer advocate

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, September 6th. The anniversary this Saturday of the great blackout of 2011. Last September 8th, one of the warmest days of the year, a power outage in the middle of the afternoon knocked out electricity to seven million people in Southern California, western Arizona, and Baja California. All of San Diego County was blacked out for about 11 hours. Joining me to remember that blackout and discuss the results of the investigation into its causes are my guests, KPBS investigative reporter, Amita Sharma. SHARMA: Hi, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And Bill Powers, local energy engineer and advocate. POWERS: Hello, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: But first, Stephanie Donovan, spokesperson for SDG&E. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. DONOVAN: My pleasure. Ironically, I was in our emergency operations center for a practice run, an exercise we hold often throughout the year to look at what we do in emergencies such as we faced last year. So I want people to understand that this is not something that we take lightly. We practice for it. We have plans, protocols and procedures in place. And we actually have learned some things from the power outage last year. And hopefully we won't have to implement them because we're hoping, but you never say never in a situation like that. An emergency can happen. We just want to make sure that we're as prepared as we can be. CAVANAUGH: Right. You say you found out some things because of this power outage. Did you find you had to make any changes to the way you operate as a result? DONOVAN: I would not say that there were specific things that we would need to change. If anything, we were going to beef up the things that we did right. And part of that is what I'm referring to in terms of having procedures and protocols, plans in place that would allow us, should we find that there is some kind of an emergency somewhere on our system, whether it's the loss of two major transitional lines, sunrise, and the southwest power link, what can we do almost instantaneously to prevent another system-wide collapse? So we were exercising drilling on that, walking through it for all of the various pieces of our company. Not just communication, but the operational folks are critical. CAVANAUGH: We are still waiting for a final response from the worse than electric coordinating council on last year's blackout. Do you expect some changes to result from that? DONOVAN: Well, we're very interested in what the final response is going to be. And we are certainly hoping that their recommendations will be implemented in a very quick manner. Because our customers bore the brunt of the outage last year, we certainly have been taking an active role in monitoring the progress of some of the other utilities and entities who are involved and making sure that they are moving forward in implementing the FERC NERC recommendations. So we have been working closely with them. We've been working with them for a couple of years which predates the outage. But the use of technology I think will be key in making sure that there is some additional transparency between the various operation control centers like SDG&E, Edison, the ISO, which is the independent system operator who monitors and manages most of the California grid as well as our other neighboring entities and utilities. CAVANAUGH: I'm going to move on with my other guests in studio and talk about the day of that, but before I let you go, I want to ask you about the claims that San Diegans filed against SDG&E. I think there was about $7 million in food that went bad, and other blackout-related diagonals. How has SDG&E handled that? DONOVAN: Well, we are looking really for direction to the reports that have been made in the investigations by the federal energy regulatory commission. And those reports are indicating that the cause of the outages that affected SDG&E's service territory and our customers were actually a result of somewhere other than SDG&E's action. As a result, SDG&E will not be paying the claims that were filed for losses caused by last September's outage. As you mentioned, we received more than seven thousand claim, and we have communicated that information to our customers. We've sent each of those customers from whom we've received a claim a letter explain that we are going to deny the claims because there were no actions on our part that could have prevented or as the reports have found, SDG&E was not responsible for the blackout. CAVANAUGH: Do they have any recourse that you know of beyond that? DONOVAN: Well, I understand that there are some class action proceedings that are continuing in the federal district court in Southern California. But based on those earlier reports, we believe that that action will ultimately be resolved in SDG&E's favor. The Court has already dismissed certain claims that were in the lawsuit, and we will move forward on that to seek rejection of any other claims at the appropriate time. I think one of the other things that should be considered is that there would be some kind of a rate impact potentially should we be required to fulfill the claims requests, if we were to pay out that $7 million, that would be considered a part of doing business. Of we don't think we're going to get to that point. We've already denied the claims in the hopes that we don't have to burden everybody with what happened further on the September 8th of last year. CAVANAUGH: Right. And once again, thank you so much. DONOVAN: Certainly, my pleasure. CAVANAUGH: Now, let me bring back in Amita Sharma and Bill Powers. As I said, with Stephanie, bring us back to that afternoon last September. We've all been through minor blackouts before. Initially it wasn't too startling. But last September 8th, everything went out. SHARMA: That's right. The lights went out a little after 3:30 PM on September 8th, which was one of the hottest days of last year. The outage happened after a utility worker in Yuma Arizona tripped off an electric transmission line. Now, there are safeguards within the system that should have been able to isolate that problem. But they didn't kick in. So the initial tripoff ended up cascading throughout the system. And the two transmission lines into the power link and the I-5 corridor went down. Parts of Riverside County, all of San Diego County, and parts of Baja California. There was about 3 million people in total who were left in the dark. CAVANAUGH: Now, most people were at work. The office went dark, the computers didn't work, schools, the ones that were in session, they stopped. How did the blackout affect various ways of life here in San Diego? SHARMA: Well, traffic lights stopped. So there were bottlenecks on the roads and on the freeways. I got caught on the street within the blackout. CAVANAUGH: You couldn't get gas. SHARMA: I couldn't get gas. Gas stations shut down. It took me two hours to get home to Carmel Valley. That should have taken about 20 minutes to a half an hour. CAVANAUGH: The airport shut down? SHARMA: The airport shut down, schools closed, businesses closed, supermarkets shut down. And millions of gallons of sewage spilled into rivers in San Diego County and in Tijuana as well. CAVANAUGH: And communications affected. SHARMA: You couldn't get cellphone service, telephone service. Yeah. CAVANAUGH: There were just a few radio stations for people who have battery-operated radios or car radios. KPBS went off the air. We did not get back on until late in the evening. One thing that's changed since that time, KPBS now does have an emergency backup power system that we can bring up in case of a long-term power outage like that. Considering basically -- San Diego County came to a halt, it went well into the evening. Was anyone hurt? SHARMA: Well, there were some minor traffic accidents but there weren't any major injuries. The police station was operation on a generator. Police were on the lookout for looters. But again, there weren't any major problems. CAVANAUGH: And we just talked about damages with Stephanie Donovan. There were a lot of people who said that they suffered monetary damages because of lost food, and we're not just talking about supermarkets. I mean, people with things spoiling in their own personal freezers and refrigerators that hay had to throw out. SHARMA: A figure that I got from SANDAG, probably about four or five months ago was that the blackout cost SDG&E customers up to $118 million in lost food, productivity, and overtime for government employees. CAVANAUGH: It really was a big deal. Bill Powers, let me go to you, as Amita told us early on, within the first hours of this blackout, we were hearing things about it being started at a utility switch yard outside of Yuma, Arizona, and I know the image of this one lone utility worker cutting the wrong wire that might have put all of Southern California in the black. But do we know how this ended up affecting such a wide area? POWERS: We do. It is true that there was a utility worker in Arizona who had a check list of things to do to isolate a piece of equipment, and he skipped a couple of steps because he was distracted. And that caused that transmission line to trip out. But what was happening in the region was the imperial irrigation district, which is between us and Arizona, they were experiencing a near record demand. They were stressed. Just to the south, are the Mexican utility was also dealing with a very high demand, and all of their generation was online. They were operation almost at the margins of their reliability. Then this happens in Arizona, and it causes a ripple effect through the system. But thing that hasn't been talked about hardly at all is that a report was written by the federal energy regulatory commission on this blackout, and they pointed out that Sempra's 600 megawatt cycle plant in Mexicali was offline, sitting there not in use. The power plant in Carlsbad was warm but not producing any significant power. So two of our four biggest power plants on the third day of the hottest heat wave of the year are sitting idle. And that was not addressed. Why is that? CAVANAUGH: One of the entities that was basically in the mix when it came to that federal investigation was the independent system operator. Now, a spokesperson for the ISO was not available to speak with us during our live show today. We have a clip though from an interview Amita conducted with ISO spokesperson Stephanie McCorkel. NEW SPEAKER: Because of the cascading effects of the system disturbance that started in Arizona, there were only 11 minutes. We have typically 30 minutes to increase operation reserves, and all of this transpired within 11 minutes which made it impossible to bring up additional generation in time. CAVANAUGH: Let me go back to what you were saying, Bill. One of the things that the federal investigation did point out was that the grid operators did not -- were not aware that the power plant in Mexico was down. They basically pointed to the lack of real-time awareness among people operation this extraordinary complex web that we call the grid. POWERS: Well, I think there's a chapter that needs to be written yet on what happened. What the federal electric regulatory commission stated was that, well, in this area, September is a shoulder moment. Things are cooling off, and plants go into regular maintenance in September. That is absolutely not true. September is when we often have our peak demand in San Diego. It's still extremely hot in imperial county. That is simply an incorrect statement. So one, what they didn't touch on is this the keyso's market system working during heat waves? I don't think it is. Because that plant should not have been offline. It should have been protecting the region with its neighbors being stressed. And the same is true here in San Diego. I think the real question is, is the ISO's market structure working during these heat waves? And I don't think it is. SHARMA: FERC pointed out, had there been more power generation online, that could have either helped mitigate or prevent the blackout entirely. So I asked FERC right after the report came out, why didn't that happen? Why wasn't there more local power generation? And why didn't they include that answer in their eight-month long investigation? They would not answer that. They directed me instead to the California independent system operator, which is again in charge of making sure there's enough electricity in the grid to meet customer needs. So I posed that question to the ISO spokeswoman, Stephanie McCorkel, asked why there wasn't more power generation on September the 8th, considering at that point it was the hottest day of the year. NEW SPEAKER: You can't keep every plant running or else you're going to run up the cost of electricity in California to the point where basically rate payers can't afford it. CAVANAUGH: Okay. I'm kind of overtime here. But there are two questions that I really do want to ask. You are saying, Bill, that the way this is operated is not correct for Southern California, considering when our heat waves come, etc. But San Onofre has been offline all summer long, we haven't gotten any power from San Onofre, and we've been in a heat wave now for almost a month. And haven't been any significant power outages that I'm aware of. Does that indicate to you anything, that there have been some changes made in the grid to keep us going even when there's this high stress level in San Diego? POWERS: It's a testament to the fact that we've built a lot of power generation over the last decade, and we have built our reserves up to a very high level. And we can easily with stand the loss of songs. And just one quick comment to ISO, we're talking about more power generation in just 1% of the year, not the whole year. It's a different issue. CAVANAUGH: So I guess basically you both answered this in a way. Do you think that a blackout like the kind that happened last year could happen again? POWERS: Yes. I have not seen any significant modification to the fundamental issue of how this bower market is operated where SDG&E can import most of its power even in the hottest hour of the year as if it's just another day, and that needs to change. And we haven't begun to talk about it. CAVANAUGH: One thing probably we all learned from it is that you have to be better prepared in a situation like that and make sure you have some batteries available just in case.

Western Electricity Coordinating Council Report
Preliminary response to the “Arizona- Southern California Outages on September 8, 2011” report from the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Saturday is the anniversary of the "Great Blackout of 2011." Last September 8 -- one of the warmest days of the year -- a power outage at about 3:30 p.m. knocked out electricity to 7 million people in Southern California, Western Arizona and Baja California. All of San Diego County was blacked out for about 11 hours.

Stephanie Donovan, a spokesperson for San Diego Gas and Electric, said today her company held a practice run "to look at what we do in emergencies such as what we faced last year." She said SDG&E holds these practices several times throughout the year.

"I want people to understand this is not something we take likely, we practice for it, we have plans, protocols and procedures in place," she said. "We actually have learned some things from the power outage last year."

Donovan said although SDG&E learned things from the outage, there are not specific things they need to change.

"If anything we were going to beef up the things we did right," she said.


The Western Electricity Coordinating Council today released a preliminary report of what happened during the blackout. Donovan said she hopes their recommendations will be implemented quickly.

"We have been working very closely with WECC, and some of the things they're doing involve new technology that allows us to get a lot of information very quickly," she said. "The use of technology will be key in making sure there is some additional transparency between the various operating control centers like SDG&E, (Southern California) Edison, the ISO, which is the independent system operator who monitors and manages most of the California grid."

SDG&E received more than 7,000 claims worth about $7 million for losses sustained during the blackout, but the utility stated in May that it would not pay them.

Donovan told KPBS federal reports have showed the cause of the blackout was not SDG&E's fault.

"The cause of the outages that affected SDG&E's service territory and our customers were actually a result of something other than SDG&E's actions," she said. "There were no actions on our part that could have prevented it."

Corrected: March 28, 2023 at 3:21 PM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.