California Scramble is on for generators : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Address: Published Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Scramble is on for generators

A second day of blackouts forces procrastinating business owners in search of ways to keep the electricity on

By George Avalos and Chris Metinko TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The encore of rolling blackouts prompted some East Bay companies and homeowners to scramble Tuesday to find backup sources of electricity.

Officials with generator companies in the area said the telephones rang up a steady stream of sales and inquiries. For the second straight day this week, mandatory blackouts darkened offices, factories, stores and homes throughout California on Tuesday.

"We're definitely getting an upsurge in calls," said Bob Ojala, sales manager with California Diesel & Power in Martinez. "We've had some dot-com companies, homeowners, a surgery center at a hospital, we have had cities call us about backup generators. They're laughing about it and say it's something they should have done already."

Many of the calls to Bay Area vendors are about getting help in fixing or re-starting a generator that has done little more than gather dust in a shed or garage.

"All of a sudden, that generator that's been sitting around is a precious piece of equipment for them," said John Kaye, principal owner of Westline Industries in Alameda. "These blackouts are a big surprise. They shocked me." His business also lost power this week during a rolling outage.

Dentists, convalescent home operators, medical clinics and health care outlets, along with small supermarkets, were among those whose representatives contacted generator suppliers. Kaye said his generator company was without power this week for a few hours.

McGrath RentCorp of Livermore also was jolted by the grim possibility that power outages could become a way of life, especially when California starts to swelter through some long, hot days this summer. Executives at McGrath decided Tuesday to find backup power sources and long-term solutions for the electricity needs of the maker of temporary modular offices and equipment.

"Our awareness has heightened on these issues," said Dennis Kakures, McGrath's president and chief operating officer. "Knowing that the blackouts are only to get worse has prompted us to move faster."

What's more, McGrath is going to host its Internet site, which will be an increasingly crucial way for the company to communicate with customers and vendors alike.

"It's going to be essential that we're up on the Internet all the time," Kakures said. "We can't afford to be down."

That predicament also confronts Internet Frontier, a Walnut Creek-based online service provider. Internet Frontier is tucked away in a section of Walnut Creek where neighbors might find a noisy generator to be a problem, especially if it's running during the evening on a hot summer night, according to Art Coombes, general manager of the company.

Internet Frontier hopes to install a generator in an enclosure and run wires through or over the building, Coombes said.

"The blackouts bring things back to the front burner," Coombes said. "They have never been off the stove, but they have sat on the back burner. We had been thinking for a few months about doing this, and we at least now have a little bit of breathing room before summer. But we have not been as prudent as we could have been."

Officials with a regional supermarket chain also are alarmed by the mandatory outages and what they portend for summer. Andronico's Market Inc. has backup generators that can last up to two hours. But if blackouts intensify during heat waves, the generators at the company's 10 Bay Area stores might not last long enough to ensure the frozen foods at the markets don't spoil.

"The blackouts give us more urgency to find a solution," said Bob Flaharty, chief financial officer with Albany-based Andronico's. "We're looking at a longer-term solution. We're looking at self-generation of electricity on our sites, using gas turbines."

There's plenty of money at stake. Andronico's officials figure each store has frozen goods worth about $200,000 to $300,000 at any given time.

"Freezer stuff has a relatively short life once the power goes out," Flaharty said. "It'll stay cold for a while, but after a certain point, there's not much you can do."

For some businesses, a backup generator isn't an option.

When the blackouts hit around noon Monday in certain areas of Walnut Creek, both the Carl's Jr. and Mary's Pizza Shack in the Citrus Center shopping development lost their electricity.

Losing power any time of the day is bad for a restaurant, but it can be especially brutal when the failure hits during lunch, as it did Monday.

Carl's Jr. estimates it lost around $1,200 in sales for the three-hour block between noon and 3 p.m. the restaurant was closed. Mary's, on the other hand, remained open and was able to serve food because its ovens were already hot and could still cook food.

"It really didn't affect us much," said Mike Miller, store manager at Mary's. "We had one table leave because we couldn't do some of the things they wanted, but other than that we served everybody."

Miller estimates that the pizza shop serves around 150 to 200 people during those hours.

Jumpin Java, another Walnut Creek restaurant, has been lucky enough to keep its power thus far through the rolling blackouts, but store manager Danny Raison said that if the eatery lost its power during its peek times of business, the sales loss would be around $500 to $600.

Restaurants also have other fears than just lost sales during a blackout.

"We've been out of power quite a few times in the past, and our biggest concern is keeping the food we have refrigerated and cold," said Victor Chow, store manager at Pot Belly Deli in Walnut Creek. Chow said the store's refrigerator keeps food preserved for around four to five hours with no power.

"As long as the blackouts remain around two hours, we're fine," Chow said.

Chow added that the deli loses a "couple hundred dollars" in sales when the power goes out during the blackouts but is still able to serve most of its customers cold sandwiches.

A number of East Bay technology companies already have backup generators in place to power their operations in an outage. And executives at Pleasanton-based technology companies PeopleSoft Inc. and Tut Systems Inc. encourage employees to use battery-powered laptop computers when the electricity falters.

"Laptops are standard issue at PeopleSoft," said Steve Swasey, a company spokesman.

Still, the wreckage left by this week's blackouts will likely trigger plenty of sales of generators and other equipment to keep the juice flowing.

"Human nature is such that we procrastinate," Kaye said. "But when the lights go out, people act."

George Avalos and Chris Metinko are Times business writers. Reach Avalos at 925-977-8477 or and Metinko at 925-952-2670 or at

-- Martin Thompson (, March 21, 2001


I see two problems with all these
homeowners buying and installing

  1. Increase in pollution
  2. Backfeed onto the grid when these
    systems are not installed with an
    isolating switch.

-- spider (, March 21, 2001.

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