End wide-scale blackouts with smarter grid

by Randy Wilde

In the wake of last week’s major blackout, everyone seems to be shocked by the “unprecedented” energy failure. To be sure, when 1.4 million people in San Diego County are without power for approximately 15 hours, causing an estimated loss of as much as $100 million, it is a serious emergency. But it may not be as rare as you’d think: Even just throughout the past decade, you can find a long list of entirely similar events, especially in California.

Frequent rolling blackouts throughout the energy crisis of 2000 to 2003 made our state’s vulnerability to power fluctuations and market manipulations painfully obvious. In 2003, 50 million Americans in the Northeast and Midwest lost power in a massive outage. And again in 2005, the Los Angeles area was hit by a major blackout.

To put last week’s events into context and learn from them, we must keep history in mind and examine not only emergency preparedness, but also what we can do to prevent the continuation of the trend.

First of all, I would like to applaud San Diego State’s impressive reaction to the crisis. Like minutemen, police and other personnel appeared quickly to direct traffic at major intersections. The phone and email notifications of campus closures as well as general emergency information were helpful and reassuring.

Some cracks in our regional preparedness did show through — especially when it came to water. The residents of Fallbrook, Ramona, Valley Center and Coronado had to severely cutback usage. And massive sewage contamination caused the closure of San Diego beaches and the issuance of a boil-water advisory for tap water in many areas.

So what useful perspective should we take from all this? Like the metaphorical fallout after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, I expect most media commentary will focus on preparedness and emergency response. However, focusing solely on crisis management would be missing the wider picture. Understanding the general conditions that make disaster possible and focusing on prevention is much more important in the long term.

Energy security and independence is a common topic of political rhetoric these days, without much real action to back it up unfortunately. But even if our country can begin to move toward energy independence, if one utility employee in another state can inadvertently shut off power for a large swathe of another so easily, perhaps we need to look even a little closer to home. Power distribution and smarter electrical grid technology is certainly a must. Most importantly, though, is moving toward a more self-sufficient region. The San Diego region is heavily dependent on imports from other areas for both energy and water. We need to take quick action to increase local supply of both. Of course this increase in supply must be accompanied by demand management. Developing more energy efficient technologies and conservation strategies is paramount to the continued success of the San Diego region.

Reduced reliance on imports could provide a long list of benefits: economic growth and job creation, enhanced security against terrorism and natural disasters, much greater efficiency, prevention of economic losses and human suffering and reduced environmental impact, to name just a few. A more self-sufficient San Diego is a safer, more prosperous San Diego.

We can be proud of SDSU’s great strides in the area of energy creation and independence as well. Most of you have probably seen, heard or read about the new solar array newly completed on top of Parking Structure 1, which added 340 kW of solar power generation capacity to our campus. Other solar panels are located at the Aztec Aquaplex, Children’s Center, Extended Studies building, Music building, Physics building, Parking Structure 2 and West Commons. Even more solar installations are planned for other buildings, and the Student Union undergoing construction is also a landmark energy efficient project. SDSU must continue to lead the way in the years to come while championing similar action on a regional scale.

Let this unfortunate event serve as a wake-up call and impetus for a new energy revolution. There is no better time to invest in local energy infrastructure. Oil prices, climate change, solar-friendly policies, the blazing sun and now this power outage all cry out that the time to build is now, before imported fossil fuel energy inevitably falls out of reach. Our leaders must work on incentivizing the necessary investment to capitalize on the huge amounts of potential solar energy. One day soon San Diego sunshine will power the air conditioners of overheating San Diegans.