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Power failure

Outages reveal need for maintenance, backups

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

From Editorial Page

It might be hard to believe that power lines sagging into trees in rural Oregon caused the huge blackout that cut power to 4 million people all over the West last weekend. But that appears to be true. A similar outage on July 2 was also caused by tress falling over power lines.

Electricity is shared on a regionwide basis these days. While that works much better than the old system, in which every city supplied its own power, it apparently doesn't work quite well enough. Government regulatory agencies and utility companies must understand that the two power outages this summer were completely unacceptable.

Power officials from all over the West are now gathering to figure out just why backup systems didn't work and how such blackouts can be prevented in the future. Providing the public with answers is extremely important, particularly because we are deregulating the power industry, allowing producers to compete for customers.

While deregulation could produce lower energy prices for businesses and residents, maintenance and infrastructure must not be allowed to suffer.

Immediately after this weekend's power outage, utility companies in the Pacific Northwest began furiously trimming trees along the Pacific Intertie line that shares power up and down the West. A helicopter fly-over of the entire Intertie system also is planned to look for overgrown trees and other problems. That shows just how important simple maintenance can be.

Even with the huge power demands due to extremely hot weather and the Intertie line arcing into trees, a massive power outage should not have occurred. The cause is not a shortage of power. And if it's not human error, it would appear to be an infrastructure problem. The western power grid is so important to our everyday lives that it should have redundant systems and safeguards to ensure that these failures stop.

The answer is to expand the Intertie system and make it more foolproof. Local utilities should, if able, maintain more reserve power during times of heavy power usage. But the West should never go back to a system in which all power is produced locally.

The current system, in which power is shifted throughout the region as needed, is much more efficient and economical. And while the weekend blackout was certainly a problem, existing safeguards within the system prevented it from becoming a catastrophe.

Backup power and other measures kept the entire West from being paralyzed. Contrast what happened here to the power outages in New York City in 1965 and 1977, when the nation's biggest city was totally without power for up to 24 hours.

Congress and federal regulatory agencies have cleared the way for competition in the power industry. Transmission grids, originally built by utilities, will be open for use by discount competitors. That's good because it will bring cheaper power.

But as the two power outages this summer show, regional energy infrastructure and maintenance need to be improved. The population and economy of the West continue to grow, and energy demands are rising even faster. Our electricity supply must be reliable.

Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune