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Could the massive West Coast blackout have been prevented?

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“It makes one wonder that if this could happen unintentionally by a single person doing routine maintenance, what might terrorists do intentionally,” says Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit research institute in Dallas. “This shows the need for revamping and improving our entire electrical grid system, most of which is 20 to 30 years old. Most people have already acknowledged this but I don’t think they realized how soon it was needed and how fragile the existing system is.”

Several analysts say more “redundancy” needs to be built into the system, specifically the incorporation of backup procedures that kick in when something goes wrong, like a second pair of brakes in a subway train. The redundancies take the onus off of inspectors – helping to avoid human error.

“Sometimes the best way to prepare for every possible contingency from natural disaster to human error is simply to build in redundancy,” says Nabil Nasr, a member of the National Research Council Board on Manufacturing and Engineering Design. “So many things can go wrong that it becomes hard and expensive to prepare and design for them all.”

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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