Marco? Paolo!

By DeusExMacintosh

Who turned off the lights?!

A massive power cut has caused blackouts in the US states of California and Arizona, and in Mexico.

Five million people were without power on Thursday, with many likely to remain out of service for another day or two. There was traffic chaos. San Diego was the worst affected city, where all outbound flights were cancelled.

An investigation is looking into why the blackout spread from Arizona, where a piece of equipment was switched off. Extreme heat may be a factor.

Officials say that a power line between Arizona and California was knocked out of service after an employee carried out a procedure at a substation in Arizona.

“There appears to be two failures here – one is human failure and the other is a system failure. Both of those will be addressed,” said Damon Gross, a spokesman for APS.

Daniel Froetscher, a vice-president at APS, told the Associated Press news agency it was “not a deliberate act”.

“The employee was just switching out a piece of equipment that was problematic,” Mr Froetscher said.

In Los Angeles, trains were stopped because there was no power for lights and signalling, and a number of people had to be rescued from stuck elevators and theme park rides.

California’s two nuclear reactors were forced to shut down…

The blackout also affected cities across the border in Mexico’s Baja California state.

Traffic lights were knocked out in Tijuana, while hospitals and government offices lost power. The border crossing at Otay Mesa was closed to all but pedestrian traffic, according to AP.

BBC News


  1. Posted September 11, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    There’s a lot of research being done these days into improving the resiliency of electrical grids. A lot of them run close to their capacity and they tend to have reinforcing failure modes.

    Eg. Power plant #1 fails, Plants 2, 3 and 4 reach 102% capacity. Plant #4 fails, plants 2 and 3 reach 120% capacity. Plants 2 and 3 are past safe limit and shut down.

    Failures like these can quickly cascade throughout the system. The problem is that there’s very little redundant capacity and only partial ability to selectively blackout areas to retain supply elsewhere.

  2. kvd
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I just think it’s amusing to see how really insubstantial ‘clouds’ are. The ones that run on electricity I mean. Not fully paying attention, but hasn’t there been a series of cloudages in the past week or so?

  3. Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink


    True, but people don’t really compare like with like in these discussions. I would be surprised if the cloud operators had worse downtime/MTTF numbers than a lot of the in-house IT they’ve taken over.

    It’s the illusion of control. People feel safer when they are in control of something (a car, for example), regardless of the actual risks involved. It’s easy to imagine “fixing it yourself”, even if fixing it yourself would take longer and happen more frequently.

  4. kvd
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Fair comment, Jacques – excepting only that the main ‘cloud people’ sell point is “on line, all the time, don’t worry, be happy”. I am certain that they are more reliable, but less so than their hype – is all I’m saying.

  5. Posted September 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Oh definitely.

  6. Posted September 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Efficiency versus “Publically owned utility Engineer-driven gold plated solutions” comes to mind. SCADA is not easy though … when perfectly logical rules for most everyday circumstances don’t cater for the circumstances that could be expected.

    The cascades are more likely to be problems up closer to the poles with things like solar storms.

  7. Posted September 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, but gold plating doesn’t happen any more, for two reasons.

    Firstly, price rises are constrained for political reasons, steadily crimping cashflow over time.

    Secondly, in markets where the power company is public owned, it’s seen as a cash cow and its surplus is yoinked into treasury instead of being spent on improving the network.

  8. Chris Bond
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    This is a relatively common occurrence, not just in the US, but all over. A few recent and much bigger examples:

    On August 14, a wide-area power failure in the northeastern USA and central Canada (Northeast Blackout of 2003) affected over 55 million people.
    On 27 to 28 September, the 2003 Italy blackout resulted from a power failure that affected all of Italy except Sardinia, cutting service to more than 56 million people.

    On August 18, almost 100 million people on Java Island, the main island of Indonesia which the capital Jakarta is on, and the isle of Bali, lost power for 7 hours. In terms of population affected, the 2005 Java-Bali Blackout was the largest in history.

    On the night of November 4, in parts of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal over fifteen million households were left without power after a big cascading breakdown. The root cause was an overload triggered by the German electricity company E.ON switching off an electricity line over the river Ems to allow the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl to pass through safely. The impact of this disconnection on the security of the network had not been properly assessed, and resulted in the European transmission grid splitting into three independent parts for a period of two hours. The imbalance between generation and demand in each section resulted in the power outages for consumers.

    [ ]

    In public utilities I think it’s unlikely there would have been any ‘gold-plating’ of designs for decades: they are driven by their bean-counters to cut costs wherever they can. Against that they have to balance the risks and penalties / costs if they do suffer extended outages. Their investment decisions will be made on the basis of whatever is their acceptable frequency of failure, not ‘regardless what it costs’.

  9. Bryan
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    A useful guide to the US power outages is here:
    Notice that the US has 3 grids and there are not connected and worse are out of phase with each other. US is trying to connect using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC)
    HVDC is used in Basslink (Tassie to Vic)

  10. Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that Bryan, there’s an interesting article at Online Opinion that floats the idea of using an HVDC cable to allow Australia to become an energy exporter to Asia.

  11. kvd
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    [email protected] – now that’s really quite fascinating. Thank you!

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