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Extent of L.A. Blackout Gave DWP Chief a Jolt

The agency's top official pledges to find a way to limit outages. A fix could cost millions.

September 14, 2005|Patrick McGreevy and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

A day after an accidental short-circuit cut electricity to half of Los Angeles, the city's top power official acknowledged that he was taken aback by the blackout's extent and promised to find a way to limit such outages -- an effort city leaders estimated could cost millions.

Ron Deaton, general manager of the Department of Water and Power, told the City Council on Tuesday the department did a good job when it restored power to 2 million people within 1 1/2 hours. But Deaton acknowledged it was "perplexing" that so much of the city was affected and said he would bring in an outside consultant to look for a fix.

Council members, who summoned Deaton to provide an explanation, were baffled by the apparent fragility of the system.

"All of us are concerned that we put into place some sort of checks and balances that do not exist now that would prevent one human error from causing that kind of incredible outage in our city and beyond," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

The day after the blackout, energy experts praised the utility for averting a wider shutdown, but called on the DWP to end its isolation from a statewide power system group that can serve as backup.

And council members criticized how slow the city was to keep the public informed of the crisis and how long it took traffic officers to reach intersections where signals were out.

Taking what one council member called the "hot seat," Deaton provided new details of the incident, saying the outage could have spread to other parts of the state but for quick action by DWP workers.

He told the council the blackout began after a worker with more than 20 years on the job cut into a bundle of live wires with insulated tools. Power was supposed to have been off during the installation of an automated monitoring system at the Toluca Lake receiving station.

The workers involved had replaced manual systems with new automated systems at 39 other locations without any problems.

Deaton said there are plans to install an additional 100 monitors.

He said the department would look at improving the procedures it uses for turning off power during maintenance.

Deaton said the short-circuit triggered the sequential shutdown of transmission and generation systems, a process designed to protect them from damage in power surges.

The first 200,000 customers lost power at 12:32 p.m. and 150,000 others lost power seven minutes later. By 1:10 p.m., about 756,000 customers, more than half of the city's customers, were affected.

"I still maintain and truly believe that the system did what it was supposed to do," Deaton said. But, he added, "What we're going to do is get some kind of an outside review."

Jan Smutny-Jones, head of the Independent Energy Producers Assn., credited the DWP with acting quickly to prevent a "cascading" power failure that could have spread across the state.

"They got this under control very quickly," he said.

Deaton declined to estimate the cost of any fix, but a high-level DWP official said that if it requires installing redundant systems, including transformers and switches, it could cost millions.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, who heads the committee that oversees the DWP, said the solution could carry a multimillion-dollar price tag, but he said that would be more than warranted given the economic losses suffered in large blackouts.

"We can't afford to have this happen," he said.

Nancy Dayton Sidhu, an economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., estimated the losses could be at least $23 million an hour -- the amount of wages lost to workers stuck in traffic and in darkened offices, or in payments employers made to idled workers.

In a letter released Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave Deaton seven days to report on what happened, and to "include details of DWP's plans to avoid further problems."

Cardenas and others complained that a lack of timely information given to the public fueled speculation that the incident might have been related to a videotaped terrorism threat made against Los Angeles a day earlier by a member of Al Qaeda.

"It would have been very important for the department to let the public know early on that it was human error," Cardenas said.

Deaton said he told the media it was human error as soon as he confirmed it, about half an hour into the blackout.

Other council members said they were concerned that the city Department of Transportation did not appear to have an adequate emergency plan to quickly deploy traffic officers to intersections where signals went dead during the outage.

"I was not comfortable that the Department of Transportation responded as quickly as I thought they should have," Hahn said.

Deaton also reassured concerned council members that the outage had nothing to do with an ongoing labor dispute involving agency workers who are looking for a new contract.

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