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Pleas for Warning Of Next Blackout: ISO to address customers' biggest gripe about outages

Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, March 26, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Under intense public pressure, state power regulators will try to solve a widespread complaint about the rolling blackouts plaguing California: how to warn people that the lights are about to go out.

One of the biggest gripes people have about the outages is getting no advance warning of outages that render everything plugged into a wall socket utterly useless. While many people say they understand blackouts are, for now, a fact of life, they also want to know when the next one will roll through their neighborhood.

Jillian Hom, an employee at a San Francisco branch of Baskin Robbins, said it would sure come in handy to get advance notice of a power outage -- especially in the ice cream business. "It would give us time to cover up all the flavors of ice cream so they would stay colder longer" she said. "It would also give us time to prepare because we're not supposed to stay open during a blackout."

Although the utilities pull the plug, the decision to start a rolling blackout is made in Folsom by the Independent System Operator, which manages the state's massive power grid. The outages begin whenever California's electricity reserves dip below 1.5 percent, threatening to bring the grid crashing down.

ISO board member Carl Guardino thinks it might be time for the agency and the utilities to begin warning people before cutting the juice. He plans to raise the issue during Friday's board meeting. Guardino could not be reached for comment but purportedly wants to balance protecting the grid with allowing people to prepare for a blackout.

"He understands the situation the ISO is in, and he understands that PG&E is doing the best that it can," said Michelle Montague-Bruno, spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group -- which Guardino leads. "He's completely sympathetic to everything everyone is dealing with. But he also thinks we have to do something to improve the system."

The inconvenience of a sudden outage goes far beyond missing your favorite soap opera or even having the ice cream melt. Businesses lose money. Researchers working with radioactive, infectious or corrosive materials face grave risks. High-tech firms spend hours or even days recalibrating equipment. The list goes on.

These hassles could be minimized, if not avoided, if PG&E would tell people when and where the outages will strike, Montague-Bruno said. "The more warning they can give, the more we can prepare," she said.

Although the outages often come out of the blue, PG&E's 4.8 million customers have a vague idea of when it's their turn in the rotation. Customers are assigned to one of 14 blocks, and power is cut to each block sequentially. Customers can determine which block they're in by looking at the lower left corner of their bill.

"If you're in block 14 and we're (cutting power) in block 4, you know you can breathe fairly easily," said utility spokesman Scott Blakey. "But if you're in block 5, you know you can expect an outage." But the blocks cover vast swatches of the state, and power can be cut to a portion of each block. That leaves critics complaining that block numbers are all but meaningless.

Brandie Spencer, a shift manager at the Pasta Pomodoro chain in Berkeley, said the restaurant's accounting department deals with the power bills so she has no clue what her block number is. "I have no idea when they plan to pull the plug on us," she said. "But I do know that it will be bad if it comes as a surprise in the middle of a busy day.

We don't have back-up generators, so food orders won't be able to be filled, cash registers won't work and I can't very well send customers home."

PG&E argues providing more specific information could jeopardize public safety. It claims criminals would know which neighborhoods and businesses aren't protected by burglar alarms, security cameras and the like. But authorities in Palo Alto and Alameda -- two cities with municipal utilities that actively tell customers where the next outage will strike and roughly when it's coming -- haven't found any evidence supporting that view.

"I can't think of a major increase in crime during the blackouts," said Agent Jim Coffman, spokesman for the Palo Alto Police Department. Others note that outages typically come during daylight hours, when criminals are less likely to strike, or early in the evening, when most folks are home.

PG&E also argues there isn't time to alert millions of people to rolling blackouts, which often start with just a few minutes notice from the ISO. "We often do not have any lead time," Blakey said. "The last time we had outages, (the ISO) lost two power plants just like that. Bing, bang, boom and we were in the middle of a Stage 3 alert."

Municipal utilities also have a fraction of the customers that PG&E does, which makes it far easier for them to notify people, Blakey said. "We have an average of 225,000 people in each block," he said. That's about 10 times as many people as the Palo Alto Utility Department serves. But municipal utilities said notifying customers isn't particularly difficult -- or costly -- thanks to the Internet.

Alameda Power and Telecom spent about $20,000 creating a system using a telephone hot line, e-mails and faxes to provide information to its 32,000 customers, said utility spokesman Matt McCabe. The information is available within minutes of an ISO call for outages, he said.

"It wasn't a tremendous expenditure of money, but it has been a lot of time, " McCabe said. "But Alamedans have a very high expectation, and rightfully so, that we should keep them apprised of the power situation. That's an obligation that we have."

Chronicle staff writer Stacy Finz contributed to this report / E-mail Chuck Squatriglia at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 1

-- Swissrose (, March 27, 2001


Since summer is almost here, and things have no where to go but down hill for a while, it seems to me that they should just start SCHEDULING regular black outs. Many 3rd world nations only have power part of a day and they know when they will have it and when they will not have it. I would rather lose it an hour every day, if it were the same hour, than get "hit" now and then. I have worked in large hospitals and it can be a real pain...figuratively and literally. One time the generator didn't kick in during an open heart surgery (valve replacement) and we had to take turns with a hand crank keeping the heart/lung machine going. At 60 revolutions per minute it wasn't real fun, plus surgery heated up like an oven and all monitors were down. Not fun! But one could schedule around such things if times were known. Taz

-- Taz (, March 27, 2001.

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