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Power outages virtually assured

By Steve Geissinger SACRAMENTO - If government was responding to blackouts like it would any other disaster - whether firestorm, flood, or quake - it would dispatch troops to a barren strip of the Central Valley.

There, some lawmakers and energy experts say, an outfit such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would swiftly upgrade a transmission bottleneck, called Path 15, that virtually ensures rolling outages in the Bay Area and across Northern California this summer.

Sure, the legislators and experts acknowledge, there are plenty of wildcards that could make the expected blackouts worse this summer - from heat waves to lax conservation, from generator breakdowns to plant construction delays.

But no matter how lucky California gets, it will almost certainly suffer because of the Path 15 bottleneck that's played a central role in most of the rotating outages so far. The bottleneck prevents authorities from shipping power north from Southern California, which sometimes has a surplus supply of electricity.

As things stand now, a fix, likely to cost at least $200 million and take two years, is mired in the uncertainty of the energy crisis itself.

Few had heard of Path 15 until the energy crisis and its soaring wholesale power prices developed this winter, financially shattering utilities, triggering blackouts and forcing the state into the power buying business.

To spread electricity throughout the West Coast, an electron freeway of sorts extends 1,200 miles between Washington state and Los Angeles. Three towering high-voltage transmission lines form that freeway, except in one place.

The network, in the zone named Path 15 by engineers, narrows to two, 500,000-volt lines stretching southeast from the Los Banos area for about 90 miles to the Coalinga region. Parts of the bottleneck are visible to those traveling Interstate 5.

In most of this year's rolling blackouts, the bottleneck has prevented the state's transmission grid manager from being able to transfer surplus south state power to Northern California. The California Independent System Operator, the state's grid manager, was forced to order rotating outages in only the northern portion of the state.

The bottleneck also contributed to outages in the Bay Area last June.

Ironically, the bottleneck could have worked in Northern California's favor this summer, helping the region retain surplus hydroelectric power that couldn't squeeze through the bottleneck. But dry conditions throughout the Northwest are curtailing that.

In fact, the bottleneck will benefit power plant owners in the north because the scarcity of power will allow them to charge higher prices. At the same time, generators in the south may be harmed somewhat because they won't be able to get their electricity to more lucrative markets.

To make matters worse, though new power plants to alleviate the crisis are planned both north and south of Path 15, more are planned south of the bottleneck.

Although there is widespread agreement on the need for quick and bold action on the energy crisis in general and on Path 15 in particular, longtime plans to improve the bottleneck are now mired in complex energy-crisis politics and the myriad uncertainties of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bankruptcy.

"We have to pretend like we just had an earthquake," Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, said during a recent meeting of her Senate Energy Committee on the crisis.

Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Daly City, immediately responded: "This is an earthquake."

Assemblyman Phil Wyman, R-Tehachapi, who agrees there's a need for emergency actions as if "we're at war," believes that perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers would be the appropriate agency to tackle the problem with Path 15, owned by PG&E.

He's authored a bill, thrown into limbo by PG&E's bankruptcy filing, that would earmark $10 million to pay for initial environmental reviews of the Path 15 upgrade.

Path 15's two lines were typical when it was built in the 1960s. But over the years, various utilities have bolstered the rest of the transmission system. Although PG&E has studied adding an extra line, the utility held up because of cost and regulations that make the lines a poor investment.

Meanwhile, energy use outpaced construction of the infrastructure to supply it.

When PG&E went broke this year buying wholesale power at soaring rates and selling it as lower, capped retail rates, Gov. Gray Davis offered a rescue that included state acquisition of Path 15 and the rest of the roughly 30,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines owned by the state's investor-owned utilities.

The Davis administration, as part of the proposal, joined PG&E in talking about Path 15 improvements. But then the utility opted instead to enter bankruptcy proceedings that have thrust the fate of the bottleneck into limbo.

Utility officials said they are uncertain whether they will gain permission from the federal bankruptcy judge to proceed with the project or whether circumstances will allow it.

Terry Winter, president of Cal-ISO, wonders whether "the bankruptcy court will, with its traditional focus on maximizing the value of the debtor's estate, recognize the criticality of allowing these investments to go forward."

The Davis administration, moving toward acquisition of SoCal Edison's lines, is uncertain whether it will still have the opportunity to purchase the PG&E grid that includes Path 15.

At the same time, a group of north-state municipal utilities has volunteered to finance the transmission-line expansion if the state promises reimbursement. But that's something the state isn't willing to do in light of the bankruptcy that leaves the project in PG&E hands.

The Transmission Agency of Northern California said it could have completed the work in just a couple years.

Even if the way is cleared for the upgrades, more 150-foot-tall steel towers spaced at quarter-mile intervals don't make popular neighbors. Although the area is largely rural, citizen protests could delay or stall the work on the lines, which some link to radiation-related health hazards.

The project would cost between $200 million and $300 million and take years to complete, but it is but one of several necessary grid upgrades, although most of them are lesser in scope.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 23, 2001

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