Prisoners of the Grid

The September 8 blackout provoked by a failure at a private utility company substation in Yuma, Arizona, rolled across the border and affected more than 1.3 million people in northern Mexico, according to press accounts.

For more than ten hours, chaotic scenes unfolded in the states of Baja California and part of neighboring Sonora. Workplaces ground to a halt, classes were canceled, traffic lights stopped functioning and water service was interrupted. In the Baja state capital of Mexicali, the electricity shut-down came as temperatures soared to 111 degrees.

The cities most impacted included Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Ensenada, Rosario, and
San Luis Rio Colorado.

Panic-buyers seeking water, ice and food saturated Oxxo and Circle K convenience stores. The proximity of the blackout to the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as this year’s disaster at the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, prompted sensational speculation as to the cause of the power outage.

Store customers in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, were quoted: “Is it true that another plane crashed?” “”Is it true there were terrorists?” “Did a thermonuclear plant explode?”

Although widespread problems ensued across the borderland, emergency power generators allowed some Mexican hospitals to remain open while public transportation continued providing service. In Tijuana public security held firm, according to officials.

“People went home, they were in their homes,” said Adrian Hernandez Perez, Tijuana police chief. Hernandez credited the swift reaction of the police coupled with the response of the citizenry for the absence of troubles.

Javier Larios, superintendent for Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission in Tijuana,
said Baja California and a section of Sonora are hooked into a cross-border electrical grid that extends up the West Coast north to Canada.

More than a decade-old, the system spanning the US-Mexico border is mainly meant to provide power reserves in the event of emergencies, Larios said. According to the Mexican official, Baja California feeds 2200 megawatts into the grid while the US supplies 55,000 megawatts.

Tijuana’s maquiladora industry reported that production shut-downs and product delivery delays from the US side resulted in preliminary losses to the tune of $1.5 million.

“We are left with the lesson to have an emergency generator so we don’t lose production in process,” said Norma Yael Lomeli Pierce, president of the Tijuana Maquiladora Industry Association. The assembly-for-export industry employs 155,000 people in more than 500 Tijuana plants.

In addition to factories, about 35,000 homes and 1.500 schools were affected by the blackout in Tijuana, according to Alcides Beltrones Rivera, Tijuana municipal government secretary.

All in all, the power outage disrupted the lives of nearly seven million people in the United States and northern Mexico.

San Diego County was especially hard hit by the blackout, which was called the biggest one in local history, with preliminary economic losses estimated in the $100 million ball-park. Firefighters responded to people trapped in elevators, while restaurant owners and workers watched food rot away. Students got an unexpected three-day weekend.

The lack of an emergency power generator at a pump station was blamed for a massive spill of 1.9 million gallons of sewage into a local lagoon and the subsequent closure of four Pacific beaches threatened with contamination.

On the US side, some places were reported to have gone without electricity for almost 24 hours.

US authorities are reportedly investigating the precise reason for the problem at the San Diego Gas and Electric company substation that set-off the cross-border energy crisis. The relevant agencies include the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.

Sources: La Jornada, September 10, 2011. El Universal, September 9, 2011.
Articles by Julieta Martinez and Ivan Pedraza. La Voz de la Frontera, September 9, 2011. Article by Luis Garcia Higuera. Laprensadesanluis.com, September 9, 2011. Article by
Jesus Barraza Z. Signonsandiego.com, September 9, 2011. Articles by Morgan Lee,
Jeff McDonald, Karen Kucher and Debbi Baker. Frontera.info, September 9, 2011.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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