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State’s megawatt hunters beg, borrow, bribe to secure power

By Audrey Cooper The Associated Press January 25th, 2001

FOLSOM -- Megawatt hunter Bob Sullivan has promised at least two souvenir T-shirts over the last few weeks to people who came through in a pinch with power to keep the lights on in California homes and businesses.

He’s gotten so good at scrounging juice that his colleagues call him “Oombob” -- Out-of-Market Bob -- and his electron grab has become a daily routine at the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s hungry power grid.

For the ninth straight day Wednesday, California declared a Stage 3 power alert, meaning reserves fell to 1.5 percent or lower. Sullivan is one of four or so people on duty at the ISO at any one time responsible for keeping that reserve from falling to zero -- a duty that often means finagling for power hour by hour, or half-hour by half-hour, from power traders and generators from Mexico to Canada.

To do that, he searches for suppliers with unused capacity who can crank the generators up a few notches. Sullivan also looks for suppliers who have power that may be committed at the moment, but will become available in the next hour as demand elsewhere wanes -- say, in another time zone where a crunch period is winding down.

“I just tell them I’m really hurting and will take anything, even just 5 megawatts,” said Sullivan, a self-described adrenaline junkie. One megawatt can power roughly 1,000 homes.

Once a deal is made -- sometimes before a price is agreed on -- the transfer of power happens at the speed of light and operators in the ISO’s grid room figure out where to funnel it. In the end, no one can tell if the power running the toaster has come from, say, Canada or Folsom.

“Sometimes you know in four hours if you will be OK; sometimes it’s four minutes before the next hour. ... We’re used to it,” said Ed Riley, the ISO’s director of grid operations.

Sullivan’s list has about 40 suppliers in the western United States and western Canada, plus a few in Mexico.

Some generators hold electricity in reserve until the last minute because they know the prices will likely increase as supply wanes. Others fear dipping into their electricity reserves too early because of possible emergencies.

Duke Energy, a North Carolina-based company that sells electricity to the California market, saves about 10 percent of its possible energy to cover plant breakdowns. But when operations run smoothly, the company releases that extra power at the last minute, said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

Getting the power can be all about relationships. Sullivan says he often works deals when marketers allow him to call every half-hour instead of every hour.

“If you treat people like you want to be treated it will get you a lot farther,” he said.

-- PHO (, January 25, 2001

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