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Blackouts could hit Northwest, study says 25 percent chance given for regional power loss

Thursday, May 11, 2000


A recent study indicating that there is a 25 percent chance that the Pacific Northwest will see a power supply emergency, even blackouts, within the next few winters, brought U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to Seattle yesterday to discuss the reliability of the region's electrical system.

Richardson told the Northwest Electricity Reliability Summit, meeting at North Seattle Community College, that unless state, local and federal governments work together, "we'll all end up sitting in the dark alone."

Summer electricity shortages are common on the East Coast as consumers switch on air conditioners to stave off the heat.

The risk of brownouts in the Northwest is greater in winter when consumers crank up the heat.

Most issues associated with power outages are state and local concerns, but the federal government plays an key role in promoting interstate power and transmission markets which can deliver necessary electricity when demand rises.

"To keep these markets working, it is crucial that Congress enact comprehensive electricity restructuring legislation and do it soon," Richardson said. That legislation would include standards for reliability of the nation's electrical transmission systems.

Dick Hemstad, a member of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the blackout risk mentioned in a recent report by the Northwest Power Planning Council's recent report is more a matter of managing the supply -- to have enough to meet peak demand -- than the adequacy of the supply.

The aging of the industry's work force was another concern.

"We are closer to brownouts and blackouts than people think, but it's because of a lack of trained workers, not a lack of generation," said William Miller, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Judi Johansen, head of the Bonneville Power Administration said while the power marketing agency is currently well-staffed, a number of retirements are expected within five years. She said the employment pool has dwindled because of competition with the high-tech industry for workers.

Steve Stout, vice president of Micron Technology, urged moving forward with reliability legislation.

"Power fuels the economy of the United States," said Stout. "We should be looking at using more power. Businesses need to run to create jobs."

The summit was attended by representatives of utilities, consumer advocacy groups, labor unions, power providers and marketers.

In the Northwest, talk at electricity meetings generally turns to the four dams on the Lower Snake River, which generate about 5 percent of the Northwest's electricity. Environmentalists have advocated removing the dams to preserve salmon runs.

Richardson said President Clinton is planning to release two documents later this month outlining a comprehensive strategy for restoring fish populations He offered no other details.

During his Seattle visit, Richardson also met with state Attorney General Christine Gregoire regarding the state's high gasoline prices.

Last month, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer accused oil companies of acting as a cartel to control gasoline prices. The National Association of Attorneys General, of which Gregoire is president, said the association agreed to monitor the situation.

Yesterday, she said Richardson told her he expects gas prices to decline.

"We will continue to monitor the situation and make sure there is no illegal conduct," she said.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 11, 2000

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