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Cold Spell Challenges Grid Californians crank up the heat, drain PG&E's gas supply

Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, February 10, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


The coldest storm of the season roared into the Golden State yesterday, and the prospect of a prolonged cold snap had energy regulators on edge.

As forecasters predicted more bone-chilling weather, bringing a dusting of snow to some Bay Area mountains, regulators braced for skyrocketing energy demand as Californians cranked up their heaters.

The state is expected to use an additional 1,000 megawatts of electricity this weekend, further stressing the creaking power grid.

"A cold snap is definitely going to strain supplies more than they are now, " said Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Independent System Operator.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. expects customers to burn 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day this weekend-- up from 1.8 billion yesterday.

"We expect to just be able to meet demand next week," said spokeswoman Staci Homrig. "But if it's any colder than we're expecting, or if the cold snap lasts longer than expected, we could run into problems."

PG&E's gas supply is dwindling fast, and suppliers have been reluctant to sell more amid fears the fiscally strapped utility cannot pay them. Should PG&E run low, it will cut service to large industrial customers --including electrical generators -- to keep supplies flowing to residential and small business consumers, Homrig said. Yesterday's blast of cold air shot out of Alaska and rolled across the state, dumping rain, hail and snow on everything in its path.

"It started hailing like crazy, and then it snowed, then it rained, then it snowed again and then it rained again," said Jeff Wilson, a supervisor at Tilden Regional Park in the hills above Berkeley. "It all happened within a half hour."

Bay Area temperatures didn't climb beyond the low 50s just a week after the area basked in record temperatures 25 degrees higher. As much as an inch of rain fell, and the snow line dropped to about 1,500 feet.

The storm left 3,330 people in San Francisco's Mission and Potrero Hill districts without power for much of the afternoon after lightning knocked out four transformers.

It also delayed flights at San Francisco International Airport for hours. And it had motorists slipping and sliding all over the place. The California Highway Patrol responded to 649 accidents between midnight and 7 p.m. yesterday -- about three times the usual number.

"They're using speeds inappropriate for wet roadways," said CHP spokesman Paul McCarthy.

As cold and miserable as it was yesterday, forecasters said it is only going to get worse. "The weekend is going to be cold, showery and windy with thunderstorms, hail, sleet and snow," said meteorologist Mike Pechner. "It's a very slow- moving system. It's not going to leave anytime soon."

Temperatures will be in the 40s for the next several days, and the region's peaks -- including the Santa Cruz Mountains -- will see plenty of snow, Pechner said. The high Sierra could see as much as three feet by Tuesday, and the state could get upwards of three inches of rain.

Although the rain and snow may eventually help generate hydroelectric power, the weather is doing little to please energy officials grappling with the power crunch.

The state remained under a worst-case Stage 3 power alert for a record 25th straight day yesterday, and there's no sign the streak will end anytime soon.

Power plants capable of producing about 900 megawatts are expected to come online Monday after repairs are finished. But that won't help much if cold weather in the Northwest limits California's ability to import power from there.

The plus side, however, is that the deluge could help fill reservoirs and replenish below-average snowpack. California has received about 60 percent of its normal rainfall this season. Although it's too soon to say what that might mean for water supplies and hydroelectric generation next summer, hydrologists are eager to see more rain.

"If we get the amount forecast, that will add 2 1/2 to 3 inches -- adding about 5 percent to the supply," said Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the state Department of Water Resources. "That's a nice addition, but it doesn't recover the deficit."

Chronicle staff writers Janine DeFao and Marshall Wilson and the Associated Press contributed to this story. / E-mail Chuck Squatriglia at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A1

-- Swissrose (, February 10, 2001

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