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San Diego
Monday, Oct 3, 2022

In The Dark


CEO: Jessie J. Knight Jr.

Operating revenue: $3.05 billion in 2010; $2.92 billion in 2009.

Net income: $369 million in 2010; $344 million in 2009.

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No. of local employees: About 5,000.

Headquarters: Downtown San Diego.

Year founded: 1881.

Company description: Full-service utility, subsidiary of Sempra Energy.

Key factors for success: Make power reliability and safety top priorities; forward thinking; and being engaged as a community partner.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. said it’s waiting on the results from a series of investigations into the largest power outage in the region’s history before it can make any significant changes to its operations.

“We don’t know anything at the moment that we could have done, or should have done differently,” SDG&E President Mike Niggli said. “We’re at the early stages of the investigations and we have to wait until we get the findings from those investigations.”

Asked whether the company learned any lessons from the Sept. 8 blackout that knocked out power to more than 5 million residents in the county, northern Orange County, and parts of Arizona and Baja California, Niggli said the emergency underscored the necessity for everyone to be prepared for any emergency.

“It behooves all citizens to have their own personal emergency plans in place, and their own personal emergency kits prepared,” Niggli said.

The company restored power to all areas that were affected by the outage at about 3:25 a.m. on Sept. 9, about 12 hours after it began.

SDG&E is working with the California Independent System Operator, the entity that operates the state’s wholesale transmission grid, giving it a detailed analysis on “a sub-second basis” of the event. ISO is also coordinating its investigation with all the utilities involved in the blackout as well as the Western Electricity Coordinating Council. That organization coordinates bulk electrical system reliability for the Western Interconnection, which encompasses 14 Western states, two Canadian provinces and the northern portion of Baja.

Analysis May Take Months

Stephanie McCorckle, ISO spokeswoman, said the agency has assembled a task force representing all utilities and will deliver a detailed data report Sept. 15 to the WECC, which will create an event analysis to uncover what went wrong, and determine any changes to the system.

That analysis could take about 180 days, but it might be shorter because of the magnitude of the event, she said.

“There’s a lot of interest in getting to the bottom of this very quickly,” she said. “There’s an urgency to do this, and San Diegans have a right to know what caused the blackout and what steps are being taken to prevent this from happening in the future.”

In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. are conducting a joint investigation that also involves WECC, all the utilities and the various regulators in California and Arizona.

Niggli said an initial cause of the power outage was triggered when a worker at a substation near Yuma, Ariz., replaced a capacitor (a device that regulates voltage). When power was knocked out in that area, instead of it being confined, it set off a series of failures that quickly eliminated power to the entire system.

Niggli said the loss at the Yuma site should never have resulted in the entire system failing. “That didn’t by itself cause the outage,” he said. The electrical grid system serving the region is designed to withstand partial outages and limit these by re-routing power to other lines. In fact, SDG&E’s system experiences an average of five smaller outages daily that are regularly confined and do not disrupt the rest of the system, he said.

Fail Safe Systems Fail

Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a nonprofit group that closely monitors SDG&E, said the company misinformed the public about the real causes for the outage, pointing to the Arizona event when that really wasn’t the reason.

“That’s like blaming Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for burning down Chicago,” Shames said.

There are fail safe systems in place both locally and in Arizona that are set up to deal with incidents of this kind, but something went wrong, he said. “Three doors are set up to protect California if something goes wrong. The question is why did all three doors fail at once,” Shames said.

Niggli could not be reached by deadline to respond to Shames’ comments.

Shames also questioned SDG&E statements about San Onofre nuclear plants providing much of the region’s electricity, when the region has dozens of power generation plants and small peaker plants that should have continued operating.

While an in-depth analysis of the blackout is still outstanding, one organization didn’t waste any time providing an estimate on the economic impacts.

The National University System Institute for Policy Research, basing its estimates on data culled from the utility and past power outages, said the region suffered an overall loss ranging from $97 million to $118 million.

The figures include about $70 million in lost productivity — extrapolated from lost labor costs during a 1996 blackout that affected most of the state — as well as $10 million to $20 million in government overtime, and $12 million to $18 million in perishable food losses, according to NUSIPR.


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