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Searing Heat Tests PG&E Limits Thousands of Bay Area customers lose power during rolling cutoffs

Henry Norr, Chronicle Staf Writer Thursday, June 15, 2000

Record-breaking heat in the Bay Area pushed California's already- strained electrical system to its limits yesterday, forcing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other local utilities to cut off power temporarily to thousands of customers.

As demand for air conditioning lifted power consumption in the region to an all-time high, PG&E began a program of ``rotating localized outages'' across the Bay Area at 1:20 p.m.

By 4:30, when the deliberate blackouts ended, some 97,000 customers had been affected, in most cases for an hour to an hour and a half, according to the company.

The cuts were required to preserve power for hospitals, fire stations and other public-safety services and to ``protect the integrity of the statewide power grid against failure,'' said spokesman Tom Collins.

If, as expected, the Bay Area heat wave continues, more blackouts could be required today. A bulging population and increasing use of high-tech equipment, combined with the lack of new generating capacity, have left the state with little leeway when demand peaks.

PG&E urged motorists and pedestrians to exercise extra caution, because the cutoffs could shut down traffic lights.

At noon yesterday, before starting the rotating blackouts, PG&E began curtailing power to so-called ``interruptible'' users, commercial and industrial customers who get discounted rates in return for agreeing in advance to have their power reduced when necessary.

The cuts were ordered by the California Independent System Operator (ISO), the nonprofit consortium that has managed the power- transmission system for most of the state since 1998.

Yesterday, for the third consecutive day, the agency declared a statewide ``Stage 1'' emergency, a warning it issues when excess demand threatens the system's stability.

On May 22, also during a heat wave, the ISO declared a more serious Stage 2 emergency.

The ISO warnings, however, are based on overall statewide conditions, and yesterday the situation in the Bay Area -- and the remedies imposed on the utilities -- were more critical than the low-level Stage 1 alert implied.

As of 5:25 p.m. yesterday, according to the ISO, the average temperature in PG&E's service area was 102.3 degrees. The average for the Southern California Edison area was 82.5 degrees. In the San Diego Gas & Electric service area it was a balmy 68 degrees.

Thanks to the relatively moderate temperatures outside the Bay Area, peak demand for the ISO system as a whole fell short of projections -- 43,628 megawatts, versus a forecast peak of 45,328. For today the ISO is predicting a peak load of 45,450 megawatts.

In PG&E's service area, which stretches from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, today's record peak was approximately 23,400 megawatts, according to spokesman John Tremain. The previous record, set last July 12, was 23,128 megawatts.

Aside from the mandated cutoffs, heavy consumption and high heat combined to cause several unexpected problems around the area. At Second and Brannan streets in San Francisco 1,700 customers lost power, in most cases for about half an hour, when a melting connector caused a line to fall.

The City of Palo Alto, which owns its own electrical utility, had to cut off power to about 2,300 residential and business customers in south Palo Alto.

The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group plans to issue a ``power alert'' today, urging its 175 member companies and their employees to conserve power.

Just last week, the manufacturing group sponsored a conference in Redwood City on the increasing risk to the region's tech-heavy economy posed by the power shortfall.

Several new generating facilities are under construction in California, but none will come online before the spring of 2002, according to Elena Schmid, vice president of strategic development and communications for the California ISO.


--Turn off all unneeded appliances, air conditioners, fans, pool heaters and electronic equipment.

--Open refrigerators and freezers only when necessary.

--Avoid using your oven; use microwave or other food-preparation methods instead.

--Save laundry and dishwashing until early morning or late evening.

--Cool with fans instead of air conditioner, or raise air-conditioner setting to 78 degrees or higher.

--Draw drapes or close blinds to keep rooms from heating up.

--Flip off the light switch when leaving a room.

--Turn off PCs, monitors, printers, copiers and lights whenever they are not in use.

--Send documents via e-mail instead of fax.

--Install motion detectors to control lighting in frequently unoccupied areas such as storage rooms, copy rooms and rest rooms.

--Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescents. (Seventy percent of what comes off the 100-watt bulb is heat, not light. More heat means more power consumed for air conditioning.) Sources: Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group; City of Palo Alto Utilities.

Chronicle Staff Writers Mark Martin, Janine DeFao, and Maria Alicia Gaura and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 15, 2000


We need more electric cars. The btu's it takes to build those batteries, wind those motors and keep 'em charged up should be a real boon to the utility industry.

-- Tom Beckner (, June 15, 2000.

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