Calif. energy crisis forces rolling blackouts

Brief outages affect San Francisco area after months of warnings

Action averts total shutdown

January 18, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

SAN DIEGO - After months of scares and strain, the lights finally went out yesterday in California.

State regulators began "rolling blackouts" for about 320,000 customers in the San Francisco area after electricity reserves fell so low it was feared hospitals and other emergency services wouldn't be able to operate.

Traffic lights, ATMs and other devices went dead after 11:40 a.m. Power was restored about two hours later, after regulators found electricity to purchase outside the state.

The blackouts were necessary "to prevent widespread, uncontrolled outages on the system" in California and throughout the western United States, said Jim Detmers, managing director for operations for the California Independent System Operator,which oversees power usage and sales.

Yesterday's blackouts affected customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which serves parts of northern and central California. But except for cities such as Los Angeles that operate their own generators, utilities throughout the state were told they, too, might have to cut power to non-emergency users throughout the night and into today.

"We're by no means out of the woods yet," said Patrick Dorinson, a utilities spokesman. "The next couple of days are going to be very, very critical to the system."

The state's utilities have been operating with rock-bottom reserves for weeks. Meager rain and snowfall in the Pacific Northwest have curtailed the supply of hydropower that is usually available to bolster California supplies.

The problem was made worse this week by a cold snap in most of the state and a decision by Southern California Edison, the state's second-largest utility, to default on $596 million it owes suppliers.

Last week, California dodged blackouts only after the federal Energy Department forced out-of-state generators to sell power to financially strapped utilities. Several times, regulators declared lower-level alerts in which they called on big customers to voluntarily reduce their use of electricity.

California became one of the first states in the country to approve a deregulated electricity market four years ago. Since that plan opened up wholesale electricity markets to competition, consumers and utilities have struggled with high prices and low supplies.

In San Diego, the first part of the state to temporarily deregulate retail rates, consumer power bills went up more than 200 percent before the state stepped in and capped prices late last year.

The power crisis is largely the result of simple economics: too much demand and not enough supply. Worried about tough environmental rules and the effects of deregulation, electricity generators haven't built a new plant in the state in years, even though the state's population has increased by more than half a million people annually. With continual power shortage warnings for months now, power conservation has become a way of life again throughout the state.

"I'm sitting here in an office with the lights off and the window [shades] open, and everybody is encouraged to turn off their non-essential devices," said Arley Baker, spokesman for Earthlink Inc., the Atlanta-based Internet company that has most of its data operations in Pasadena.

Like other big power users, Earthlink has diesel-fuel generators that are supposed to keep it up and running in the case of blackouts.

"In California, you have to deal with stuff like this," Baker said.

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