At approximately 4 pm on Thursday, Sept. 8, two CSU campuses went dark. A blackout that began through human error in Arizona had spread across county, state and national borders. For the students, faculty and staff of San Diego State and CSU San Marcos the blackout is a major upheaval of their daily routine – interrupting work and instruction, darkening traffic lights and limiting communications. Of particular concern in the American southwest, the blackout also took out air conditioning during one of the hottest weeks of the year.

How does such a widespread failure occur? To understand grid system failure requires a grasp of how electric power is different from other resources. The primary challenge is that electrons are extremely difficult to store. The chemistry in battery technology is improving, but still not up to the task of massive energy storage. Other options for storage have limited usefulness.

The grid was developed to take power created in a central plant and immediately transmit that power into substations, to neighborhoods and finally into the home for use. For this system to work, the “load” of power must be balanced so that the voltage (home usage is typically 110 or 220 volts) and frequency (60 hertz in the US) of the electric current stays within an acceptable range. The grids of highly industrialized nations such as the US are highly interconnected and power may travel hundreds of miles from generation to use.

What happened in Arizona is that a worker removed a piece of equipment and tripped a switch that caused a transformer to overload. Transformers are resilient but will at some point overheat and fail. This failed transformer led to a cascade or avalanche effect that caused additional transformers to fail as they also overloaded in response to the imbalance. The failure spread until power managers were able to see what was going on and take steps to disconnect their systems from the failing grid.

For Emir José Macari, Sacramento State’s Dean of Engineering and Computer Science as well as Director of the California Smart Grid Center, the blackout is yet another sign of an antiquated power grid in need of massive rethinking. In fact, thinking is exactly what Macari wants from the next generation power grid.

“Today, we don’t know there is a failure until someone calls the utility. If enough calls come in, then utilities can triangulate the problem to a failed transformer or source,” said Macari. “A smart grid would allow various monitoring points to be in constant communication with each other and human operators. The result is a system that can immediately identify problems and might even be able to offer alternative solutions.”

Ultimately, the smart grid technology would allow us to respond to a wide range of problems. For example, the cost to produce and deliver power changes radically depending on the time of day. Differential pricing could encourage power consumption when the energy comes from cheaper and often greener sources. By integrating smart applications into equipment and appliances, it could soon be possible to program energy hungry machinery to take advantage of the lowest cost power.

A smart grid may never be able to prevent human error, but in the very near future, we will likely be able to respond faster to local problems before they become regional upheavals.