Florida's Blackout: A Warning Sign?

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Alan Diaz / AP

A substation located next to Florida Power and Light headquarters is shown in Miami, Tuesday, February 26, 2008. Florida experienced a widespread power outage on Tuesday.

Floridians could not have been caught more unaware by Tuesday's massive, afternoon-long blackout. Although temperatures have been unseasonably high this month, they were hardly torrid enough to overload the peninsula's air conditioners. It wasn't hurricane season, either, when tropical storms regularly knock out power lines. It was a tranquil, balmy afternoon by the beach — the sort of "paradise" so many thousands of people migrate here for each winter.

But it was shattered by what should have been a small, isolated fire in an electrical substation on Miami's western fringe. A breaker shut down the facility, as it's programmed to do; but it failed to contain the problem, as it also should have, and so in response more than a dozen other substations in South Florida's electrical grid shut down as well. That caused a cascading regional grid collapse — including the Turkey Point nuclear power plant south of Miami — as electricity demand suddenly outstripped what was being produced. Some 3 million people from South Beach to Tampa to Daytona Beach lost power. No one was hurt; but Miami's already dysfunctional traffic was rendered hopelessly snarled for rush hour.

Aside from the transit nightmare, the Florida blackout also revived the awful memory of August 2003, when an even larger grid failure in the Northeast left 15 million people in the dark. Improvements to America's electrical reliability system have been put in place the past five years; but Tuesday was a reminder that the country's power infrastructure is still more vulnerable than many feel it ought to be. According to research by three scholars at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the average U.S. electrical utility customer experiences 214 minutes of power outage each year — compared to 70 in Great Britain and just six in Japan. "The U.S.," says their article, "ranks toward the bottom among developed nations in terms of reliability of its electricity service."

Florida Power & Light (FPL), the giant South Florida utility that runs Turkey Point and the Miami substation where the blackout started, has yet to discover why the breaker that should have isolated the fire problem failed. "These systems are all designed to handle two contingencies," FPL President Armando Olivera told the Miami Herald. "We still don't have a full understanding of what happened." Says former Florida Public Service Commission Chairman Joe Garcia, a Democratic congressional candidate, "Obviously, they've got some explaining to do. There should have been units [compensating] in other parts of the state to make sure this doesn't happen."

But Larry Makovich, vice president and senior policy adviser at the Cambridge Energy Research Association in Cambridge, Mass., says the initial confusion isn't so unusual. "You have to think of the U.S. electrical grid system as one of the world's most complex machines," he says. "A good analogy is the U.S. air traffic control system — like airplanes, the wires and posts themselves are only part of the story. The monitoring and control aspect needs just as much investment."

Both America's electrical hardware and software components, Makovich concedes, are still dealing with "a legacy of underinvestment." In the decade before the 2003 blackout, for example, annual electrical transmission investment in the U.S. grew only about 20%. Between 2005 and 2010 it's expected to jump by some 65%, to about $15 billion — a level many U.S. infrastructure critics feel the country should have been at by the beginning of the this century, not a decade into it.

As with air travel, U.S. electricity reliability is made more daunting by the nation's enormous size and its myriad geographical and climatic challenges, from mountains to hurricanes. That, says Makovich, is another big reason the U.S. has significantly higher rates of power loss than countries like France (only 53 minutes lost per year on average) or the Netherlands (only 29 minutes) — and why it may still have higher loss rates even after the big investments are finished. "Florida can be troublesome as a peninsular power system," he adds, with few neighboring systems to tie into and big exposure to tropical heat and storms.

FPL, the nation's fourth largest utility, came under heavy criticism after Florida's spate of hurricanes in 2005, which exposed lax attention to maintenance issues like updated power line poles, tree-trimming and what was widely considered an outdated grid system. The latter may not have allowed for sufficient redundancy, or the ability to adjust to strains and funnel power via different routes. Many South Floridians have been socked with bill increases of as much as $100 a month since then, which critics argue isn't necessary for a profitable utility with a revenue stream of 100,000 new residents a year.

But Florida, like the rest of the country, neglected its power infrastructure investment in the 1990s. And FPL scrutinizers like Mike Twomey, a former Florida Public Service Commission attorney and founder of Florida Utility Watch, says that despite the problems, the company still has "a very high reliability rate" compared to most U.S. utilities — as low as half the average number of lost power minutes the rest of the country experiences, says FPL. Garcia agrees: "It has a good record, among the best in the Southeast."

To many that makes Tuesday's troubles all the more unsettling in a national context. Then again, if a number of things went wrong in Florida, just as many things actually went right: except for the initial substation breaker, the system responded — and was back up in a matter of hours — as it should have, perhaps preventing a more serious outage that could have lasted well into the dark night. "This certainly raised a red flag about Florida's vulnerability, if not the nation's," says Twomey. "But in the end the system worked as it was supposed to." In other words, South Florida's electrical grid proved a lot more resilient than its awful traffic grid.

With reporting by Siobhan Morrissey/Miami