The power grid may determine whether we can kick our carbon habit

  • High voltage transmission lines and turbines at the Dry Lake Wind Project near Holbrook, Arizona. The project is operated by Iberdrola Renewables, and all its power is purchased by Salt River Project.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The 2011 San Diego blackout.

    Sean M. Havvey/U-T San Diego/ZUMApress.com
  • The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix can crank out more megawatts than any power plant in the nation, and the associated Palo Verde/Hassayampa switchyard is the most active electricity trading hub in the West.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The switchboard and generator of the world's first single-phase AC power transmission system at the Ames hydroelectric plant near Telluride, Colorado. The plant, now owned by Xcel Energy, continues to feed up to 3.75 MW into the grid.

    Library of Congress, HAER COLO,57-AMES.V,2A-6
  • The Alhambra control center of the California Independent System Operator, which manages about 80 percent of the state's grid and the mix of energy going into it.

    California Independent System Operator
  • Wind turbines line the ridge above the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. When water levels are highest, the Bonneville Power Administration may force wind generators to shut down, to avoid overwhelming the grid. Courtesy

    Samuel M. Beebe/Ecotrust
  • Contractors watch last April as a helicopter places a lattice tower for the Sunrise Powerlink, the controversial 117-mile, 500-kilovolt electric transmission line that runs from Imperial County to San Diego, California.

    Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • High-voltage transmission line in Arizona.

    Jonathan Thompson
 

Minutes before 4 p.m. on a sizzling September day two years ago, right at the time when they were most needed, San Diego's air conditioners suddenly died. Thousands of television and computer screens also flickered into darkness. Stoplights stopped working, gas stations ceased pumping, and traffic slowed to a snarl. Trains ground to a halt and planes idled on the runway. Wastewater treatment pumps shut down, spewing some 4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Pacific. Around 2.7 million "customers" -- amounting to anywhere from 5 to 7 million people -- lost their power, with some remaining in darkness for 12 hours or more.

As commuters extricated themselves from highway gridlock, and batteries faded away on millions of electronic devices, folks flocked to the handful of neighborhood bars that –– thanks to generators –– were able to keep their lights and refrigeration going. There, they could drink away the darkness and speculate as to what had caused this sudden plague of electrical impotence.

Many assumed it was terrorism -- San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station had been sabotaged, they said, or the North Koreans had set off an electromagnetic pulse that fried the grid, or maybe an Iranian cyberattack had crippled the computers that keep the modern world humming. Others blamed solar flares for disrupting the cosmic electromagnetic field, or suggested that a more earthly storm had caused distant wind farms to go haywire. Then again, perhaps a raven just landed on the wrong piece of equipment out in the desert and got fried, its death rattle reverberating through the transmission lines all the way to San Diego.

Their guesses weren't stupid or outlandish -- they all involved genuine threats to the power grid. But the biggest power outage to hit the Western Grid in a decade actually started hundreds of miles east, at a substation outside Yuma, Ariz. And it began not with a bang, but with a misplaced checkmark that ultimately crashed Southern California's electrical system.

That event was no freak occurrence. It could have happened anywhere, at any time, in the complex machine that generates, transports and delivers power to nearly every corner of the nation. Our proliferating air conditioners and gadgets have put new pressures on the grid, as the demand for electricity has grown twice as fast as the infrastructure needed to carry that power. Now we're straining it even more by trying to get that power from cleaner, more fickle sources. Meanwhile, the electrical grid -- the circulation system of today's modern age -- is still stuck back in the '80s, like one of those guys from high school who clings to a mullet haircut and his Dungeons and Dragons dice. Compared with what's to come, some say, San Diego's blackout might seem in retrospect no more than an excuse for a candlelit block party.

A 6-foot-high, gleaming white cross stands alongside a mostly empty road near Tonapah, Ariz. At its foot is a tiny Nativity scene, and an angel on the end of a stick. The shrine's purpose isn't clear, but its location makes it seem like an altar dedicated to the patron saint of electricity. Behind it, rising from the desert scrub, are the elongated containment domes of Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station's three reactors. And beyond them lie two huge fields of photovoltaic panels and three natural gas power plants. There is probably no other five-square-mile patch on the planet with more electrical generating capacity.

Yet just as critical is the network of transformers, switches and wires through which all that electricity flows. Congregated just north of Palo Verde, a dozen high voltage transmission lines slice the sky, crackling ominously as they link up in the giant, skeletal "switchyard." The lines, gently curving toward earth between each giant tower, lead inward and outward in every direction, like spokes on a bicycle wheel, making the Palo Verde/Hassayampa switchyard the biggest power-trading hub and crossroads in the region -- the electrical Union Station of the West.

Among these lines is the 500-kilovolt Hassayampa-North Gila, or H-NG, line. On Sept. 8, 2011, about 1,300 megawatts -- almost half of all the electricity imported into Southern California that day, enough to power about 1.5 million homes -- flowed westward through the H-NG line. All that juice was needed because it was so hot; the mercury hit 115 degrees in El Centro, and even sea breeze-cooled Oceanside reached 88. By mid-afternoon, air conditioners cranked across the Southwest, while irrigation pumps pushed water onto the half-wilting lettuce in California's Imperial Valley.

On its way to San Diego, the H-NG line passes through the North Gila substation outside of Yuma. Just before 2:00 that afternoon, Arizona Public Service, the substation's operator, sent a technician out to fix a capacitor bank, used to stabilize voltage in long-distance lines. As he worked -- we'll call him Kilo Watt, since the utility has kept his or her identity secret -- he marked each completed step on a checklist to make sure that he didn't miss anything. But then Watt, distracted, put a mark in the wrong place, causing him to skip one critical step: bypassing all that juice around the capacitor bank so that he could work on it safely.

At approximately 3:27 p.m., he cranked open the disconnect switch, an event that should have been uneventful. Instead, the 500 kilovolts still running through the line began to arc -- the current leaping through the air, much the way the evil Emperor zapped Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. Watt continued cranking the switch, hoping to manually break the arc. Instead, the writhing electrical serpent grew larger, and some 43 milliseconds later, the entire H-NG line "tripped," like a home circuit breaker, and shut down.

The chain reaction, which would climax just 11 minutes later, had begun.

But the roots of the San Diego blackout are deeper than that Yuma substation. In order to really understand what happened, we need to travel back in time to the grid's primordial days among the hardrock mines of the Rocky Mountains.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.