San Diego Blackout

Major Power Outage Shows Weakness of Aging Electric Infrastructure

A major power outage in San Diego has shown the strain on the nation’s aging energy grid.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Right around the time when President Obama started talking about ways to revive the economy, nearly five million televisions across Southern California and Arizona went black. It was ironic that while the president lamented the state of American infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and schools, that the U.S. electric grid gave out, an equally aging piece of American infrastructure that analysts have said is also in need of a major upgrade.

The Great Blackout of 2011 gridlocked traffic, closed schools and canceled flights. Electricity wasn’t fully restored until Friday morning, when the problem had appeared to be caused by a maintenance project gone awry near Yuma, Ariz.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) launched a joint inquiry into the lapse, which is common for major energy outages. Spokespeople for both agencies declined to speak for this article, but in a report released last month, the two agencies noted that a major power outage in the Southwest in February was caused by two main factors: unpredictable weather and the unreliability of the grid.

The early assessment of the latest blackout faults a major power line network connecting Arizona and California. When the maintenance project went bad, the network of power lines, which connect power plants to substations that allocate energy to different areas, caused a feedback loop of decreasing energy that essentially knocked much of the region off line.

Most power blackouts are initially caused by human error, like the iconic 2003 outage in New York when a maintenance project (and a falling tree) kneecapped much of the Northeast and parts of Canada—and left about 55 million people powerless—for about a day. But the resulting cascade is often a symptom of inadequate infrastructure and antiquated recovery measures. Learning from mistakes, regulators have mandated some new measures to ensure higher reliability, like trimming trees along busy transmission routes and better training for plant operators.

The most fundamental fix, however, has hardly been addressed. Last year, the Electric Power Research Institute studied America’s aging grid infrastructure. Most large transformers that regulate power transmission were designed with lifespans of 40 to 50 years to maximize reliability and efficiency. Yet the average age of transformers is 42 years old, and many are plagued by cosmetic breakdowns, like loosening screws and fraying wiring, which utilities have been unable to fix without finding new funding through rate increases.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the technology that’s deployed,” says Clark Gellings, a research fellow with EPRI. “The advanced technology is only modestly deployed. Until we get a greater recognition of their value, we’re pretty much in the same place.”

Everyone from energy analysts to engineers have agreed. In 2008, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s grid infrastructure a “D” grade and said in a report that “the U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization.” Several years prior, Bill Richardson, former energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said that America was “a superpower with a third-world grid.”

Grid infrastructure is generally older in the East, mirroring the nation’s early origins. But the geography in California and the Southwest poses unique challenges. Greater distance between cities requires more reliable transmission. And higher landownership closes off corridors for new building. The issue of homeowners opposing any new transmission lines once known as NIMBY—“not in my back yard”—has now been replaced in energy circles by a hardened acronym, BANANA: “Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.”

“It’s been very difficult to site and build new lines out West,” says Erich Gunther, chief technology officer with EnerNex, an energy research and consulting firm. “So all those factors make it particularly challenging to keep up with things.”

One potential solution has long been a national smart grid, a revitalized network that would better allow cities and local communities to monitor power use and forecast usage peaks. Unused power or electricity generated by homeowners could more easily go back into the grid and be shuttled elsewhere. Next week, scores of policymakers, regulators, and technologists will meet in Washington at the nation’s biggest Smart Grid conference, known as GridWeek, to continue the effort to make it happen.

If it happens on a large scale, it’s likely to be mostly a private industry effort. “We have not been able to keep up with construction over the past decade,” admits Chris Hickman, CEO of energy research firm Innovari. “Because of the absolute lack of direction from fed government, it’s created a dramatic level of uncertainty.”