When the lights go out

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The Fresno Bee

When the lights go out

If summer blackouts arrive as predicted, enterprising Valley residents will be ready with lanterns, grills and even generators.

By Mark Grossi, Kerri Ginis, and Matt Leedy The Fresno Bee

(Published April 29, 2001) April showers will only bring May flowers this year -- not a bouquet of filled western U.S. reservoirs that could funnel hydroelectric power to rescue California from its energy crisis.

That and other circumstances support a bold but dark summer prediction about the electricity crisis from the nonprofit group monitoring the state's grid: "an electricity shortage of unprecedented proportions."

The statement from the California Independent System Operator, or ISO, clarifies little for residents, business owners and government bureaucrats, many of whom are already worried and preparing for the worst. What does it all mean?

Does it mean a business owner should make a six-figure investment in a generator? Should you turn off your television and put up a clothesline in your back yard? How can government protect older people whose health cannot tolerate the San Joaquin Valley heat without air conditioning? How bad is this going to get?

Nobody knows yet. But experts have numbers and guesses about the power grid.

California's combined anticipated electricity shortages for June, July, August and September would light almost 7 million homes, says the projection from ISO engineers, who will decide when rolling blackouts begin.

It could mean more than 80 hours of rolling blackouts over more than 30 days, compared with the 14 hours of blackouts over four days so far this year, according to experts ranging from utility account managers to academics to private consultants.

For Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s customers, the rolling blackouts would occur about two hours at a time. There are 14 customer blocks, allowing the utility to take down power to one block at a time. No one is sure how many days a week or a month people might experience the blackouts.

Other experts, including engineers at the ISO, say it might be worse. They cite reduced hydroelectric power contributions from a dry Pacific Northwest and uncertainties about PG&E bankruptcy.

Lon House, who advises water agencies and rural counties, says the outages might happen every afternoon of every weekday from June to September.

"They may call me Chicken Little, but it's too late to avoid this now," says House, whose credentials include an ecology-engineering-economics doctorate from the University of California at Davis and jobs with the California Public Utilities Commission.

House adds: "I'm telling people to figure out how you're going to make it through a summer with rolling blackouts."

But conservation, new "peaker" generators and higher utility rates might cushion the blow, according to Terry Winter, ISO president and chief executive officer. Who knows? say others; it might be a cool summer, and the power situation might not be so bad.

June is projected to be the worst month. The ISO estimates the state will be short 3,647 megawatts, enough to supply about 3.6 million homes.

Shortages are projected to taper off to 1,444 megawatts in July, 1,248 megawatts in August and 666 megawatts in September, as new power production units come on line.

"Our figures are based on historic averages," says ISO spokeswoman Lorie O'Donley. "But electricity is consumed in a moment in time. We don't know precisely what will happen."

When asked how long the power may go out this summer, some officials just balk. Craig Schmidt, public affairs director of PG&E, says he won't quote such numbers.

"We're looked upon as experts, and what we say is looked upon as fact," Schmidt says. "We'd rather tell people about ways they can conserve."

Call back just before Memorial Day for more details.

Anxious residents, business owners and local governments are not waiting that long. Governments are planning to protect the elderly; businesses are researching purchases of generators; and residents are changing lifestyles.

For example, Fresno resident Mary Contreras is hauling her family's wash to a coin-operated laundry rather than use her own electric washer and dryer.

Her washer and dryer are used almost daily when she's not going to the coin-operated laundry, she says. After washing clothes at the laundry, she dries them on a clothesline at home.

"It saves me on my bill," Contreras, 38, said as she waited for the clothes to finish washing. "Every little bit helps."

She and others in PG&E's service area could experience a rate increase of up to 46% this summer. Although all details are not yet available, the costs will be higher for those who use more electricity -- energy hogs.

Contreras, who has three children at home, wants to save energy by barbecuing meals.

"We just have to cut back on everything because, really, to pay double what you normally pay is like adding another bill to your home," she says. "Everything is going to be real bad this summer if something isn't done to stop this."

Indeed, for the elderly on fixed incomes, it may be a cruel summer.

Lorraine Wilson, 73, doesn't want to think about how much more her PG&E bill is going to be. She has already had difficulties paying in the past.

Living on a fixed income of a little more than $600 a month, Wilson had to pay a $500 bill one month, and her last bill was nearly $400.

It doesn't leave her much money for food and other necessities, she says.

"With such a little income, how are we seniors going to pay?" she asks. "We have other bills to pay. We have rent. We have food. How are we going to survive?"

Another senior, Veda Oliver, says she's prepared if the lights are turned off in her three-bedroom Visalia home. She has kerosene lanterns, a battery-operated radio and a grill so she and her husband, Lester, will still be able to have light and cook.

"I'm prepared," says the 71-year-old Oliver. "I don't really like air conditioning, and I'm used to hot weather. I stay cool most of the time."

But what about businesses that need electricity to keep their doors open? Without electricity, Jim Karas can't make shakes or french fries at Angelo's Drive-In, a quaint hamburger stand in Fresno's Tower District that has been in his family since 1954.

He can't even operate his soda machine without electricity.

"It pretty much puts us out of business whenever it goes out," Karas says. "Last month it hit us between 11 and 12:30, and that's our lunch hour. It was real rough."

Karas says his gas bill has already doubled, and he has raised prices slightly to keep his business going. If power outages continue throughout the summer, he says, it could mean increasing prices even more.

Brian Kan, owner of China Palace Restaurant in Fresno, may have a bigger problem. He says he may have to permanently close the doors if continuous blackouts plague the area this summer.

"When we turn the sign to closed, we lose some customers," says Kan, who has owned the restaurant for 10 years. "We're a small business. Maybe we won't be able to make money, then we can't pay the rent. It's very bad."

Alex Yang is planning ways to keep his Asian market, Ty Yang Market, open even in the dark.

"We still have to do what we can do," he says. "We'll probably have to run and buy more ice and put it on the fish to keep it cold. At least with the frozen stuff, it won't defrost for a while. What else can you do? You just try to prepare."

Yang says he's ordering less food so he has fewer perishable items in stock. And he's trying to avoid using his air conditioner.

"Whatever happens, I'll just have to get through it," he says. "Lights are not my priority. Whatever the customer needs is my priority. If it's not too dark, whatever they need, we'll still get it for them."

That kind of "can-do" spirit is infecting cities and counties throughout the Central Valley that have budgeted millions of extra dollars, bought power generators and looked to alternative energy sources to prepare for the expected crunch this summer.

Kings County this year spent $550,000 on a two-megawatt power generator it will use to keep its government center running this summer.

The purchase was spurred by the county's participation in Southern California Edison's interruptible, or I-6, program that calls for businesses and agencies to turn off power during electricity shortages. In exchange, they receive lower rates.

The county signed up for the program in 1992, saving about 25% a year. The county wound up paying dearly in other ways for those savings this winter.

In January, the county's power was turned off 15 times. In one week, the power was off four straight days.

County officials have been told to expect between 30 and 40 hours of blackouts this summer. But a new power generator will allow them to keep the lights on and still reap the benefits of the interruptible program.

"Our board felt it was imperative that we be up and running for the public," public works director Harry Verheul says. "We can run it for as long as we can find diesel fuel for it."

Business has been good for companies that sell power generators such as the Quinn Co. in Selma.

Quinn, which offers heavy-construction equipment, including large power generators, sold Kings County its power generator and has been taking orders from businesses across the Central Valley. Prices range from $4,000 for a 5,000-watt generator to more than $500,000 for one capable of producing two megawatts.

Although officials were not willing to release sales figures, they say business has doubled and tripled. They say are beyond the Y2K rush.

"Nobody wants to bear this expense because it's not in their budget, but they have to weigh that against the cost of being down for hours," says Bob Rayford, Quinn's general sales manger for its engine division. "We're getting a lot of orders because people are realizing our factories can't just crank them out the next day."

In Fresno County, leaders are focusing on the elderly, trying to make sure they don't suffer through the heat during blackouts or with expensive power bills that prompt them to shut off air conditioners.

The 100-degree heat of the Valley's summers can quickly dehydrate the elderly and threaten their health.

County Supervisor Bob Waterston says he has asked American Ambulance to transport elderly residents, especially those with health problems, to the county's senior center in Clovis.

The Fresno Fire Department is working on a plan to assist Fresno's elderly residents whose homes could become too warm during summer blackouts.

Firefighters would like to take the elderly to at least five of the city's dozen community centers if they need shelter from the heat.

"When we have extended blackouts, the heat is a major issue for the elderly and those with medical conditions," Battalion Chief Cirilo Medina says.

Those who rely on electrically powered oxygen tanks should also have a "backup of regular bottled oxygen," Medina says.

As for energy costs, Fresno County has set aside almost $2 million in anticipation of rising summer energy costs.

In the South Valley, Tulare County officials expect their power bills to double this summer and are preparing to spend $1 million more than usual. There's extra cost and inconvenience with blackouts at Tulare County's courthouse, too.

Tulare County's division of Superior Court already went dark once this winter, and officials are searching for ways to keep its two courtrooms from shutting down during the summer months.

When the courthouse's lights go out, sheriff's deputies are called to take prisoners back to jail, court dates are continued, and time and money are wasted as prosecutors and public defenders stand idle.

"The court can't do anything except sit and wait for the power to come back on," says Cynthia Logan, a deputy court executive officer.

Officials say the Tulare County government building will likely be dimmed throughout the summer. Only half the lights will be used and most hallways will be dark to save money, county spokesman Eric Coyne says.

"You cut back where you can," Coyne says.

Central Californians can save electricity by conserving on water. In most area cities, water is supplied by electrical pumps.

In Madera, the savings may help keep the city from going dry during summer blackouts. Five of the city's 14 water pumps are vulnerable to power outages, not enough to threaten firefighters' supply but some residences' water pressure may be reduced to a trickle during blackouts.

"We fully expect to have some difficulty throughout the hot parts of the summer, mainly in regulating flow and water pressure," says Dave Chumley, Madera's director of public works.

During blackouts, the city can plug two wells into its pair of portable generators, and officials are hoping to switch others to gas engines. Residents will be asked to water lawns in late evenings when the electricity crunch isn't so bad.

"We're going to stress the conservation of water," Chumley says. "Most people don't see the direct effect it can have on energy."

The reporters can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com, kginis@fresnobee.com, mleedy@fresnobee.com or 441-6330


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 29, 2001


Martin, Enough of your Trash. The media hype, that was your forte, does not cut it, once the roll over hype. Best you take your little doggie, and retire to home. You can still lend a helping hand, only ensure, in your mind, what you say and do actually can help someone,somewhere. Your Choice.

-- My Story and I (am@sticking.com), April 29, 2001.

""Martin, Enough of your Trash. The media hype, that was your forte, does not cut it, once the roll over hype. Best you take your little doggie, and retire to home. You can still lend a helping hand, only ensure, in your mind, what you say and do actually can help someone,somewhere. Your Choice. -- My Story and I (am@sticking.com), April 29, 2001.""

This "reply" is absolute blather!! If you can't offer something specific on which to base your "rejection", your being nothing but an agitator and a troll. The article offers the question -- i.e. -- how much worse can a condition that EXISTS, get. THIS is not about y2k "type" suppostion.

-- Jackson Brown (Jackson_Brown@deja.com), April 29, 2001.

Martin...just ignore the idiot above. Sounds like he inhales to me! Re the power situation in California. It seems to me there are two facets that need to be addressed by THTB. One is the commercial community and the other the residents. Seems to me that if the situation has the potential that is currently being presented, that someone should be gathering and printing and getting the word out on how to keep cool, preserve food, have cold water, etc. If the black outs are for only an hour or two, the fridge should keep stuff cool that long and one can put a gallon jug of water in there. Perhaps the county could give the seniors those collars that you freeze and then put around your neck or as a head band. They are easy to make, using a kerchief and the same stuff that disposable diapers are made of. There are a lot of tricks. Those of us who lived in the 40s in Calfornia sure didn't have air conditioning. We made it ok. I now live in Florida and amazingly there were people here before AC. And what is more amazing is that lots of folks here don't have or use AC even now. I use it about an hour per day to get the humidity out of the house. And I am a senior! I have two neighbors, both widows, who neither one use AC. Both of them have it in their homes and never turn it on. And its not because of the power bills. They don't like AC and choose to keep cool other ways. There is a reason for the Siesta! Someone or organization needs to think out of the box and get this info to the people so they can prepare. Taz

-- Taz (Tassie123@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

Some of the answers are remniscent of the mass Denial concerning Y2K in 1999. The historical precedent that comes to mind is the sinking of the Titanic, when many continued to dance until it was too late.

The real danger for the average person is the possibility of major uncontrolled cascading blackouts, similar in scope to the Northeast blackout of 1968, about which a song was written by the Bee Gees. The probability of such cascading blackouts increases as system margin decreases, and system margin is projected to be "on the edge" all summer long. One or more of these uncontrolled blackouts is quite probable over the course of the summer. These, unlike controlled blackouts, affect critical infrastructure services (such as refineries, pipelines, sewage treatment, water pumping, and the like) and would have major cascading effects on the infrastructure. This scenario closely resembles what was so feared for the Y2K rollover, but this time; there is much less uncertainty (and at least the problems are likely to be regional, not worldwide.)

In a very real sense, it is "deja vu", December 1999, all over again, for those living in the affected region. The countdown clock is not as exact as December 1999, but the time remaining is about 30 days, or even less.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr999@yahoo.com), April 30, 2001.

highlights / summer of '77 Blackouts


-- Martin Thompson (
mthom1927@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

Excerpt from the above site.

"Minutes after the Blackout began, men in trucks equipped with chains and hooks were being paid by crowds to rip off the iron gates and fences that protected neighborhood stores. Within fifteen minutes, stolen goods were being offered to neighborhood residents who were on the streets or stranded in apartment buildings without elevator service." "Within two hours it became apparent that the situation was not going to end quickly, and thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens joined in what was to become the largest collective theft in history."

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

Facing blackouts, Californians look for new ways to cool their heels Copyright 2001 Nando Media Copyright 2001 Christian Science Monitor Service

By DANIEL B. WOOD, The Christian Science Monitor

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. (April 30, 2001 1:42 p.m. EDT) - Jerry Van Eimeren is draining his hot tub. Greta and Joel Farnsworth are removing the halogen stake lights that ring their lawn. And Jose Ramirez is buying backup generators for his dry-cleaning business.

"The bubble-jets circulating water through my jacuzzi were socking my energy bill so hard I am pulling the plug on them for now," says Van Eimeren, a Web site designer. "I'm also realizing that for every watt of power I use, someone else in the state may have to do without."

The prospect of rolling blackouts across California - expected to intensify with the advent of hotter weather in May - is bringing citizens and communities together to stare down a common foe: uncertain electrical supplies.

As legislators finagle over the fine points of energy policy, electricity customers are hammered at daily, through newspaper and TV ads, to voluntarily cut total electricity use by 10 percent. Ideas include doing laundry in off-peak hours and unplugging that "wasteful" second refrigerator in the garage.

And Gov. Gray Davis promises that people who cut their electricity use 20 percent this summer over last year's level will get 20 percent off their electric bills.

Plied by such ads and incentives - and unsure how the crisis will play out - citizens and cities are scrambling to be ready for the unannounced moment when some faceless bureaucrat flips a switch that plunges them into temporary darkness.

"One of the more unsettling things about this crisis has been the fact that we can't give people a whole lot of notice," says Steve Hanson, spokesman for Southern California Edison. Most of the reason is that utilities don't actually know when peak usage will force them to resort to blackouts, although concern about crime also is a reason officials don't announce blackout "schedules" in advance. "Sometimes, it might be as little as 10 minutes' notice," says Hanson.

That's not very reassuring to dentists about to drill, restaurants with souffles to chill, and motorists with empty gas tanks to fill. But like the state's encounters with drought, freeze and earthquakes in the 1990s, the current crunch is also being seen as a crisis full of opportunity.

"Like the Y2K computer threat that the nation scurried to prepare for, this is a major prescription for civic readiness that is waking people up, letting them know what is really at stake and what they can do about it," says Dallas Jones, head of the California Office of Emergency Services.

The state already has had one long round of practice drills. In late March - with electricity use still only 50 percent of summer peak - the state's power grid was so stressed that officials cut power to 50,000 customers in 40 California cities, darkening schools, hospitals, and traffic signals.

No one was cut off for more than two hours straight, say authorities. But the problems that arose then have led to months of preparation for summer.

Sacramento officials have approved the installation of six wading pools to lure residents out of air-conditioned homes with the offer of alternative relief.

Santa Monica officials are notifying residents to carry extra gasoline in their cars and get extra cash from ATMs - two electricity- dependent services that have created hassles in recent blackouts.

Several cities, including Modesto and Laguna Hills, already have identified the worst intersections where stoplights go out and are laying plans to deploy traffic officers there if a blackout happens again. Other cities are readying plastic stop signs to put into place at the most dangerous crossroads.

On Internet Web sites, advice and admonitions abound. In a pinch, frozen peas work just as well as ice to cool you down, says Modesto. Don't push the pedal to the metal at intersections with no police or working lights, warns San Francisco. Turn off unneeded lights, reset heating and cooling thermostats, switch off computers, and use drapes to trap cool air inside at night and let out warm air during the day, say others.

"People are looking into energy use with a kind of vigor that they never have before, both to help out the general situation but also to save themselves a bundle," says Linda Yamauchi, consumer affairs director for Southern California Edison. "We're actually quite thrilled by that."

In many parts of the state, energy costs have tripled, and in some cases gone even higher. Moreover, the likelihood of an extended period of high prices seems greater.

By most accounts, the state's electric utilities are doing their share of consciousness-raising, too. Many have extensive Web sites that answer questions such as how to install a generator properly, and they are reaching out to customers most at risk from outages, such as elderly patients who rely on breathing machines or other health-care appliances.

"We are visiting medical facilities, as well as notifying others to let them know of the importance of preparing for these situations," says Yamauchi. "We are letting them know to have their own backups ready and not to rely on us."

Among the electricity-using public, reaction to all of this ranges from mild inconvenience to strong irritation.

"I'm a little upset that this whole deregulation thing has come out of the blue," says the hot-tubless Van Eimeren. At the mall he just visited, every other row of overhead lighting is turned off. The local car dealer keeps exterior lights turned off, with the unintended consequence that no one can tell if the dealership is open.

While acknowledging that energy conservation makes sense, consumer groups are warning that how users respond here could affect reliability and price problems in other states.

"Conservation will help, but it won't dig us out of the hole we are in," says Michael Shames of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego. To avoid what he calls "long-term manipulation of California's electricity market" by the major electric producers, he aims to form consumers into a buyers' cartel.

He also is calling for changes in the way blackouts are implemented. "Blackouts can be organized" so customers get "sufficient notice," Shames says. "The benefits of knowing when the power will be turned off are considerable. Increased crime risks can be offset by targeted police deployment."

One last idea consumer groups such as Shames's are pushing is state purchase of thousands of new, efficient air-conditioners. Under the plan, youth groups, utility employees, and other volunteers would move systematically through the hot, central valleys of California, replacing old air conditioners.

"California is not alone, just ahead of the curve," says Shames. "If weather does not cooperate, there may be similar problems in New England and the Midwest."

http://www.nandotimes.com/noframes/story/0,2107,500477792-500734508- 504210616-0,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

Martin, thank you for the above information. Not a bad idea to stay informed, and do some planning. suzy

-- suzy (its suzy 2@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

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