What if? What if mechanical failure at a single point would automatically and instantaneously communicate to nearby nodes that a shutdown was necessary to prevent a truly widespread blackout?

If that were possible, power outages like the September 8, 15-hour blackout that affected an estimated 5 million customers, from southern California and Arizona to northern Mexico, and which may have incurred as much as $100 million in economic costs, would be completely avoidable.

According to Dr. Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter, this type of real-time communication on transmission wires is not a possibility, it’s a reality, and its called smart grid. Amin told AOL Energy that blackouts have been on the rise for the last 25 years in the United States and that in the last decade alone, power outages have jumped from 152 annually to 248 per year.

Each of these outages, he said, are costly and far outweigh the costs of building new transmission and smart microgrids. If installed, smart grid could easily save millions and provide a speedy return on investment (ROI).

Amin calls smart grid “the self healing grid” because the sensors and meters it contains give it an end-to-end resilience that could override human errors such as the one that caused the southwestern power outage last week. In a May 2007 article he co-authored with Phillip F. Schewe, Amin outlines the power of smart grid and its ability to “reduce the number of debilitating blackouts.”

In the following images, the authors illustrate how smart grid could work:

Photo Caption: (top) Traffic is backed up after traffic lights were down after a massive blackout hit Southern California September 8, 2011 in in San Diego, California. Approximately 1.5 million residents from Southern Orange County to Northern Baja were without power.