California politicians and utilities were quick to assign blame for Thursday’s blackout of 6 million customers on a single unfortunate utility worker in Arizona. In reality, they need to look a lot deeper at the root cause of the major electrical system failure that lasted about 12 hours. Why? Properly designed, maintained, and operated electrical grids just don’t collapse when a single error takes place or a single piece of equipment fails.
If things are running properly there are redundant transmission lines, spinning reserves, and power plants on standby. When a failure happens a single transmission line may go down, but system operators can reroute power around the failure and if necessary order standby power plants to pick up the load. What happened in San Diego is likely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Strategies focusing on conservation and expanding intermittent renewable energy sources, while ignoring the need for base load power plants close to population centers may have weakened the California grid.
In southern California there exists insufficient electrical generating capacity close to electrical loads; the cities. Instead, utilities rely heavily on power imported over long distances from neighboring states, and there may be too few power plants inside transmission “bottle necks.” This places cities like San Diego at much greater risk of blackouts. When the umbilical cord from Arizona was unexpectedly severed, the few power plants close to the city simply could not provide enough power to maintain grid voltage. As voltage dropped those power plants automatically disconnected to protect themselves from the low voltage condition. The result? A major blackout.
If the San Diego grid had sufficient local power they should have been able to isolate a small part of the grid and continue to run on their own power plants. Even if the local grid lost power, they should have been able to call reserve power plants into operation to repower the grid within a few minutes. Unfortunately, the power plants were over loaded; there simply wasn’t enough capacity to repower the grid without assistance from the outside.
California’s much touted renewables were of no use. The wind was blowing only 8 mph at the time, and skies were partly cloudy. Any tiny wind and solar capacity that was available was out-gunned thousands to one.
New York had better take notice! Shutting down Indian Point Nuclear plant would have exactly the same impact on the electrical grid. This is because Indian Point’s 2100 megawatts are physically located INSIDE the transmission bottleneck feeding New York City. In a future without Indian Point operating, a similar failure of a single transmission line could easily black out New York City, just as it did in San Diego this week. The NY Independent System Operator has already warned Gov. Andrew Cuomo that if Indian Point is shut down prematurely the grid in southern New York will become unstable. As a result, New York City will be more susceptible to blackouts. Gov. Cuomo’s plan? Shut down Indian Point now and hope that 2100 megawatts of generating capacity will magically appear to replace it.