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Thursday, June 6, 2013

That many-tentacled, complex creature we call the Grid

Minutes before 4 p.m. on a sizzling September day two years ago, right at the time when they were most needed, San Diego's air conditioners suddenly died. Thousands of television and computer screens also flickered into darkness. Stoplights stopped working, gas stations ceased pumping, and traffic slowed to a snarl. Trains ground to a halt and planes idled on the runway. Wastewater treatment pumps shut down, spewing some 4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Pacific. Around 2.7 million "customers" -- amounting to anywhere from 5 to 7 million people -- lost their power, with some remaining in darkness for 12 hours or more.

As commuters extricated themselves from highway gridlock, and batteries faded away on millions of electronic devices, folks flocked to the handful of neighborhood bars that –– thanks to generators –– were able to keep their lights and refrigeration going. There, they could drink away the darkness and speculate as to what had caused this sudden plague of electrical impotence.

Many assumed it was terrorism -- San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station had been sabotaged, they said, or the North Koreans had set off an electromagnetic pulse that fried the grid, or maybe an Iranian cyberattack had crippled the computers that keep the modern world humming. Others blamed solar flares for disrupting the cosmic electromagnetic field, or suggested that a more earthly storm had caused distant wind farms to go haywire. Then again, perhaps a raven just landed on the wrong piece of equipment out in the desert and got fried, its death rattle reverberating through the transmission lines all the way to San Diego.

Their guesses weren't stupid or outlandish -- they all involved genuine threats to the power grid. But the biggest power outage to hit the Western Grid in a decade actually started hundreds of miles east, at a substation outside Yuma, Ariz. And it began not with a bang, but with a misplaced checkmark that ultimately crashed Southern California's electrical system.