ISO Board Rejects Proposal for Advance Notice of Blackouts : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

ISO Board Rejects Proposal for Advance Notice of Blackouts

Robert Salladay, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau Saturday, March 31, 2001

2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Folsom -- California's power grid managers shelved a plan to notify businesses about rolling blackouts, saying e-mail and paging technology may not be fast or efficient enough to reach tens of thousands of people in time.

At its meeting yesterday, the Independent System Operator board nevertheless asked its staff to figure out a more efficient way to inform businesses, police and people on life support that a blackout may reach their block.

State officials have been struggling in the past few weeks to figure out how to notify such people in the event of a blackout. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was ordered Thursday to share its outage information with San Francisco police so they will know where to patrol.

ISO board member Carl Guardino proposed sending business owners three separate e-mail notices when power supplies dip to dangerous levels and then just before a blackout. That would give some businesses time to fire up generators or save computer files, preventing the loss of millions of dollars, he said.

But the practical effect of launching such a system forced the board to simply order a series of workshops on the issue. The ISO's staff must report back by May with a plan. The board agreed that some sort of notification system needs to be in place before summer electricity use skyrockets and more blackouts are expected.

Michael Alexander, a PG&E manager in San Francisco, told the ISO board that e-mail and pager messages can take more than an hour to reach users, especially when thousands of messages are sent at once. And not every business owner has time to constantly monitor e-mail, he said.

"These folks are out there working," Alexander said. "They are making pizzas, they are doing the dry cleaning, and they are fixing tires. They are not at a computer screen."

Alexander said PG&E did a survey of 33,000 business customers, and only 7, 200 said they actually had e-mail or would consider using it.

PG&E, which is in almost hourly contact with the ISO, already has an e-mail and telephone notification system for 2,500 of its largest customers. The utility relies on the mass media to reach people at home and in small businesses. The state, too, has an e-mail and Internet system that can be accessed at

At PG&E, Alexander said, it can take 45 minutes just to reach 1,000 customers by telephone, which means hours of advanced notification just to reach people on life support. PG&E has about 23,000 customers on life support, but only about 9,000 of them are exempt from rolling blackouts, he said.

ISO officials also said it would be difficult to send out the third e-mail that Guardino's plan would have required -- the one just before a blackout. In fact, the power managers often do not know until the very last minutes when they have to order a rolling blackout, because they can sometimes find emergency power from out of state or somewhere else.

But Guardino said even if an updated notification system would not reach everyone in time, it would be better than the current system. Silicon Valley lost an estimated $100 million in business during the last blackout, which hit 1.5 million customers statewide.

"I think companies would rather be bothered that there is a potential for a rolling blackout so that they can fire up generators," he said.

E-mail Robert Salladay at

-- Martin Thompson (, March 31, 2001

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