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Thousands Lose Immunity From Rolling Failures

'Block 50' update swapping homes on PG&E's blackout checkerboard

Bernadette Tansey, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, March 17, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


There will be an extra little unpleasant surprise for hundreds of thousands of people in their next PG&E bills -- they're being thrown into the pool of Californians vulnerable to rolling blackouts.

On the other hand, a lot of PG&E's customers who have been in danger of having the lights go out are suddenly exempt -- thanks to the utility's refiguring of who belongs in blackout-free zones.

The net effect is to decrease, by about 120,000 customers, the number of people who would be victimized by rolling blackouts that even the Bush administration said this week are a virtual certainty during summer in California.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said yesterday that about 810,000 of the 1.9 million customers who used to be exempt from rolling blackouts are losing their coveted spot in "Block 50" -- a collection of neighborhoods immune from the shut-offs because they share a power circuit with a hospital, police station or other customer deemed to be essential.

Those public services are kept running during electricity shortages -- and so are homes served by the same wires.

PG&E bumped the customers off the lucky list to reflect changes in distribution lines. In all, 360 circuits no longer power essential services.

But about 690,000 other households will receive news that they have been added to Block 50, perhaps because a fire station or other public safety building has been built in the area, said PG&E spokesman Jon Tremayne.

PG&E said it started reviewing who was in Block 50 to get ready for the likely summer blackouts. However, the changes will do little to reduce the overall percentage of customers spared from rolling blackouts. In two days of blackouts in Northern and Central California in January, 43 percent of customers were on Block 50 and had nothing to worry about. The latest change drops that to 42 percent.

By looking at the block number on their bills, customers can tell whether they will have to take their turn sitting in the dark for as long as two hours during power shortages as the utilities reduce the demand for electricity through staged shut-offs.

For safety's sake, Tremayne said, PG&E doesn't release the locations of blocks that could suddenly be plunged into the dark. "The bad guys in this world can go there and do bad things," he said.

Like an instant lottery winner, Helen Hearne, 79, of Berkeley found out she is one of the thousands of new Block 50 customers when she scanned her new bill yesterday. She has no idea why, but she is not asking any questions. "I'm relieved," Hearne said. "Everything we have is electric."

Bill Giacometti of Oakland's Montclair neighborhood, who was jubilant when he learned in January he was exempt from the blackouts, faced the possibility of being banished from Block 50. But the bill that arrived yesterday brought good news -- he is still in, thanks to the fire station up the street. "I'm elated, of course," Giacometti said. "I would say I don't need as extensive an emergency plan."

But he said he is mainly relieved that he won't have to reset the clocks on VCRs and other appliances. "You have to run around putting everything back to normal -- and then nobody remembers how to do it," Giacometti said.

PG&E divides blackout-eligible customers into 14 blocks in Northern and Central California. To spread the inconvenience equally, every one of the blocks takes its turn. Residents in part of Block 9 are next in line to suffer through a power loss. Blocks 1 through 8, as well as half of Block 9, were shut off either during the blackouts in January or during a rolling blackout last June.

Each block contains about 200,000 customers. The possibility of power shortages still looms as Gov. Gray Davis tries to line up reliable supplies of electricity under long-term contracts.

Davis also is hoping to get Californians to conserve at least 10 percent of energy usage as the weather heats up and air conditioners click on, and he is hoping to get enough power plants online to add 5,000 megawatts to the grid. Each megawatt can supply power for 1,000 homes.

E-mail Bernadette Tansey at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 5

-- Swissrose (, March 17, 2001

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