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Federal Regulators Fail To Answer Key Question About September 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.

Federal regulators said earlier this month that San Diego’s costly blackout last fall could have been avoided or diminished if more electricity had been generated locally -- even though a key power link to the East was down.

Federal Regulators Fail To Answer Key Question About September Blackout
Regulators leave out information about why San Diego did not have more local generation online during the Sept. 8 blackout which happened in the middle of a heat wave.

But they stopped short of explaining why the state’s grid operators and San Diego Gas & Electric did not order up more power that was available in the region.

The 12-hour blackout last September came during rush hour causing massive traffic jams. Schools and businesses shut down and millions of gallons of raw sewage went into local aquifers after pumping stations failed.


And San Diego was in the third day of a heat wave. Air conditioners were on and electricity demand was high. Even so, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, said SDG&E was only generating a little more than half of its power needs from local plants.

“My understanding is the largest plant in San Diego which is the Encina Power Plant was providing very little power at the time,” said Bill Powers, an energy engineer in San Diego. “It doesn’t make a lot of common sense that the biggest generator in San Diego was not providing power during not only one of the hottest days, but the hottest hours of the year.”

About 1.4 million SDG&E customers lost electricity that day. Had the Encina Power Plant been fully online, it could have provided nearly enough energy to power 1 million homes.

SDG&E had the authority to fire up the Encina plant but chose not to.

FERC blamed the blackout on inadequate planning and poor awareness by the various utilities running their portion of the grid. It also faulted automatic shut-off triggers for regional generators in the system that took effect too quickly.


But FERC also said having more local generation online would have helped mitigate or prevent the blackout.

Arizona-Southern California Outages on September 8, 2011: Causes & Recommendations
Read the entire report on the causes of the blackout and the recommendations to prevent it from happening again.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Yet despite an eight-month inquiry, FERC failed to address why that didn’t happen. Powers called that a conspicuous omission.

"Why is it that the largest power plant in San Diego at the hottest day at nearly the hottest hour of the year is sitting up ready to go but not called? ” Powers asked. “And help us as a community understand whether the rationale you’re using is appropriate because the people who got hurt were not the power companies, it was the users. It was the 1.4 million customers who were sitting in the dark with their food spoiling and everything else happening.”

Federal regulators refused to comment on why the largest base load plant in San Diego was not providing significant power to the grid in the midst of a hot spell. Instead, they referred inquiries to the California Independent System Operator . The ISO is responsible for ensuring there’s enough power in the state’s grid to meet needs.

When asked why SDG&E didn't order the Encina plant up and running, a utility spokeswoman also said to direct that question to California's Independent System Operator.

ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle said while the day of the blackout was hot, “it was not an intense heat wave."

The decision not to run the largest local power plant appeared to be economical, she said.

“You can’t keep every plant running or else you’re going to run up cost of electricity in California to the point where basically rate-payers can’t afford it. So we are managing the grid while maintaining costs as well, and that’s basically how you run a grid,” McCorkle said.

Residents and businesses have filed more than 7,000 claims totaling $7 million against SDG&E over the blackouts. The blackout cost SDG&E customers up to $118 million in lost food, productivity and overtime for government employees.

Read A Timeline Of The Events Leading To The Blackout
Read a timeline of the events leading up to the blackout.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

“That wasn’t a power company loss,” Bill Powers said. “That was an entire customer base that lost 100 million in a matter of hours so how does that factor into the reliability criteria? Is it only about maintaining some tiny margin on the buying and selling of kilowatt hour per hour or is there a security aspect that is being missed by FERC and ISO that requires a fundamental review?

The ISO says it sticks to strict reliability rules requiring it to have a cushion of 7 percent above where demand is on any given day, a rule McCorkle says the agency met on the day of the blackout.

The rules only require power companies to generate 25 percent of their electricity locally. But Powers argues that regulators and grid operators need to examine whether the requirement should be higher especially during heat spells.

“That’s the next chapter I would like to see them write,” he said.

FERC wouldn’t answer whether that chapter is forthcoming.

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