CA: Power failure risk in San Jose : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Posted at 12:14 a.m. PDT Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Power failure risk in San Jose Agency: City is area's `most vunerable' BY STEVE JOHNSON Mercury News

San Jose is the Northern California city most likely to suffer a major electrical failure over the next five years, according to the Independent System Operator, which oversees the state's power grid.

In a letter this month that voiced strong support for the gas-fired MetcalfEnergy Center that Calpine has proposed for the southern part of the city, the state agency declared San Jose ``the most vulnerable metropolitan area on the PG&E system.''

Not everyone buys that conclusion, however.

Critics of the Independent System Operator distrust its lobbying for the Metcalf plant, which it has termed one the two highest-priority plants in the state, because some of the agency's board members have ties to firms that buy or sell electricity.

Moreover, they fear that its recent campaign to speed development of various other plants, high-voltage lines and related electrical gear in the Bay Area could hurt the environment and lower property values, among other things.

``I basically don't trust the ISO,'' said Issa Ajlouny, a 42-year-old San Josean who has helped lead the fight against the Metcalf project. That facility ``doesn't belong in the neighborhood, especially when no power is needed,'' he said, arguing that other plants under construction or nearing approval should satisfy local energy demands for the near future.

But others argue that San Jose's status as the region's most electrically imperiled city is supported by evidence.

``What you heard from the ISO is accurate,'' said Ron Low, a spokesman with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., whose recent extensive study of the electrical system's future reliability were used as the basis for the ISO assessment. That study, Low said, ``takes into account a number of things, including growth in our service area, and provides a road map for the future to meet the needs of our customers.''

``We're not surprised,'' added Justin Bradley, director of environmental programs for the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. Given the South Bay's explosive growth, he said, a combination of new power plants, transmission lines and conservation will probably be needed to create what he called ``a sustainable energy future for Silicon Valley.''

PG&E's study, which examined PG&E's 131,000 miles of electrical lines and other equipment throughout its 70,000-square-mile service area, looked into a variety of events that might cause a city's electrical system to fail over the next five years. These included major glitches to transformers, circuit breakers and other gear, which could overheat high-voltage wires or cause other serious problems leading to blackouts.

Because of the extent to which various parts of the electrical grid are linked, failures on one part of the system can easily spark failures on another, said Peter Mackin, a senior grid-planning engineer with the Independent System Operator. ``The odds are that every one of them would create situations where customers eventually would get knocked out'' of power, he said.

Based on PG&E's study, 20 such worst-case contingencies were found to be possible in San Jose through the year 2005, compared with seven for the next-most vulnerable city, San Francisco.

Officials with the Independent System Operator said it was difficult to compare those numbers with previous years, because earlier studies were done differently. But they said San Jose appeared to have edged out San Francisco in the most-vulnerable category sometime in the past two years, although that dubious honor has tended to shift back and forth between the two cities over the years.

The title shifted to San Jose largely because of its enormous population growth, they said, although recent improvements to a critical high-voltage line along the Peninsula also have reduced the risk in San Francisco. That city suffered a massive blackout Dec. 8, 1998, after a glitch at a San Mateo substation led to a series of other electrical failures.

Despite the conclusion that San Jose has the least secure energy future, Terry Winter, the Independent System Operator's president, warned San Franciscans about becoming blasi, since their city isn't much more secure.

``You get into one of these almost endless debates about who is the most ugly, you or me,'' he said of the municipal rivalry that obsesses some residents of both communities. When it comes to their ability to meet their energy needs, he added, ``San Francisco and San Jose are very bad -- both of them.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 12, 2000

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