September 13, 2005

Massive Los Angeles power collapse sparks probes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One day after utility workers cut
power to half of Los Angeles by cutting the wrong wires and
throwing the city into chaos, state and local officials
demanded to know on Tuesday exactly what went wrong.

Los Angeles leaders, some of whom were stuck on snarled
roads when traffic signals went out, summoned utility officials
to explain why a seemingly minor mistake could wreak such
havoc. And they demanded to know why it took so long to
reassure the public that the outage was accidental.

California power regulators cautioned that the state's grid
had experienced wild voltage swings but said they were never
briefed by Los Angeles power officials about why the outage was
happening or how far it went.

"We are concerned with the fact that it did occur and we
are equally concerned to find out some answers so that this
doesn't happen again," Councilman Tony Cardenas told Reuters.

"I'm an electrical engineer and I was surprised to realize
that human error had such a dramatic effect," he said. "That's
very unnerving and that's why we immediately had the department
in front of us."

Though most of the 2 million people affected were without
power for less than two hours, the blackout tested nerves a day
after a suspected al Qaeda associate threatened attacks against
Los Angeles on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

City leaders said they were disappointed that Department of
Water and Power officials -- who determined quickly that the
problem was human error -- waited several hours to share that
information with city residents.

Ron Deaton, DWP general manager, told council members the
power grid was designed to shut down to avoid even larger
problems -- like the 2003 East Coast blackout that left some 50
million people in the dark.

"I still maintain and truly believe that the system did
what it was supposed to do," said Deaton, who promised an
outside review.

The Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which is
responsible for the reliability of western power grid, said it
would investigate the breakdown, the second major outage in
Southern California in less than a month.

The California Independent System Operator, which is
responsible for most of the state's grid, said it did not know
immediately what had triggered the outage and called for more
transparency during emergencies.

"We saw severe voltage swings and a drop in power loads but
we did not know what lines were out or why or the magnitude of
the problem," said ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle.

A crew with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,
the largest city-owned utility in the country, mistakenly
overloaded a circuit shortly after noon by cutting a bundle of
wires in error.

The resulting power surge triggered safety equipment to
shut down power plants to prevent the problem from cascading.

The LADWP, which delivers electricity and water to more
than 3.9 million people, is not a member of the ISO and
operates its own transmission system.

California and federal energy officials have grown
increasingly concerned about the reliability of the Southern
California power system.

The region faces "the worst electricity supply situation in
the entire country," Joseph Kelliher, head of the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission, said in June.

Officials have called for the construction of more power
plants and transmission lines to handle increasing demand,
especially in the fast-growing and hot inland areas where air
conditioning loads are high.

The Western Electricity Coordinating Council will probe the
blackouts to develop recommendations for LADWP and other
utilities to avoid interconnected breakdowns, said Kwin
Peterson, spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based group.

The investigation is expected to take several months.