Between a Rock and a Hard Place
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching the Sun for another overload
—Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman,” 1969
Along the Pacific Coast, from Oregon to Baja California, it was turning out to be another sweltering day. Normally, the more moderate temperatures in the Northwest allowed extra power to be available to feed millions of air conditioners in the south, but in August 1996 this would not be the case. Temperatures climbed into the triple digits as the Sun rose higher in the sky. Already hot power lines from the Oregon power grid began to overheat as they carried much of the 21,450 megawatts needed to support the thousands of air conditioners that came on-line every minute. On August 10, 1996, an overheated 500,000-volt power line between Keeler and Allison sagged an inch too far. A powerful and blinding arc of electricity jumped into the branches of a nearby hazelnut tree. Automatic sensors in the huge Pacific intertie sensed a problem and began shutting the system down. In an instant, six million people found themselves without power for up to several days.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the outage started at 4:00 P.M. and lasted over six hours. It was the second summer blackout for California residents in less than two months since an earlier July incident that affected fourteen states. This time, only six states were involved, including Texas and Idaho. BART subway lines were without power and most of