On a sweltering August day seven years ago, the East Valley got a lesson in the vulnerabilities of modern life when a power outage darkened parts of nine Western states.
More than 600,000 customers of Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service lost power Aug. 10, 1996, some for as long as six hours.
Utility officials said it could have been worse, and steps have been taken in the meantime to cut the chance of it happening again.
Utility officials said the outage happened when three overloaded power lines in western Oregon sagged into some underbrush and shorted out. Blackouts cascaded all the way to San Diego and as far east as Texas, even spilling into Canada and Mexico.
Emergencies immediately flooded the East Valley. Cars crashed as traffic lights failed. Gasping from the heat, people flooded emergency shelters. The Chandler Police Department’s emergency generator failed for two hours and calls to that department had to be routed to the sheriff’s office. East Valley hospitals kept functioning but one lost air-conditioning for a time and another lost its emergency room computer system.
Sheri Foote, spokeswoman for APS, said Western utility companies collaborated after that outage to prevent a repeat performance.
“A lot of things changed in terms of how the Western power grid is operated and maintained,” she said.
Steve Cobb, manager of transmission services for SRP, said electrical utilities in the West belong to a cooperative agency called the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which for years before 1996 had a set of policies to which the utilities voluntarily adhered.
After the blackout, utilities beefed up their compliance, and Cobb said they face fines if they endanger the integrity of the Western power grid.
“We’re one giant interconnected machine out here in the West,” Cobb said.
Dennis Gerlach, SRP’s manager of transmission and generation operations, said the system actually worked well in 1996. The blackout “conceivably could have knocked out everyone in the West,” he said. But “there was enough system left in order to rapidly rebuild,” getting power back for most customers in less than two hours across hundreds of thousands of square miles.