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Could the massive West Coast blackout have been prevented?

Initial reports blame a utility worker doing maintenance near Yuma, Ariz., for triggering the massive blackout that affected residents across a large swath of southern California and Mexico.

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The ultimate problem can be related to economics. “It costs a lot of money to keep these grids renewed and up to date, but we saw the cost to the entire Northeast when a single tree went down in Ohio and shut power across Pennsylvania and New York" in 2006, says Mr. Burnett. “President Obama mentioned the nation’s aging infrastructure in his jobs speech Thursday, but that was mostly about roads and bridges and schools. Few things are more critical than the delivery of electric power.”

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That comment is backed up by newspaper reports and local TV news broadcasts filled with stories of restaurants which had to cope without refrigeration, traffic jams caused by lost traffic lighting, and elderly residents trapped in their homes without air conditioning in the sweltering Southwest heat.

But even hardship can be a wakeup call to do things differently and to be better prepared, say a host of companies which are introducing new technologies to deal with such occasions.

“It used to be very expensive to duplicate all of your computers and have a way to deal with the data businesses need to stay up and running,” says Andrew Lochart, vice president of marketing for nScaled, a company that provides backup and disaster recovery for businesses. Several east coast companies used Mr. Lochart's services during hurricane Irene.

Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says the incident presents an opportunity to discuss the many issues surrounding utility needs and operation from the consumer side. His center has done extensive work on systems and controls that reduce electric load demand during crises.

By automatically shutting off power to less-critical uses like lighting during a crises, you can save much-needed energy for essential services, says Mr. Leslie. In a heavily populated state like California, where nobody wants any more power plants or power lines in their backyard, “this is critical," he says. "This event has been an opportunity to make this all clear.”

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