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Scorching heat sparks rolling blackouts

Posted at 10:45 p.m. PDT Monday, May 7, 2001


Record temperatures coupled with a spate of out-of-commission power plants were all it took to nudge California's electrical system into overload Monday, triggering rolling blackouts in a grim prelude to what could become a daily reality in coming months.

With more hot weather forecast, conditions are expected to remain perilous today and perhaps Wednesday. But a cooling trend due Thursday should ease the threat of more outages, said Jim McIntosh, director of operations for the California Independent System Operator, which manages the flow of electricity for most of the state.

State officials have warned that blackouts could become routine this summer, particularly if Californians don't get into the habit of using less power. ``To the extent that you can live without it,'' he said, ``it will make a big difference.''

Officials ordered power to be shut off at 4:45 p.m. and restored service at 5:41 p.m., the fifth time state officials have ordered rolling blackouts this year. The last was March 20.

Movie screens, popcorn-makers and video games went quiet for about 20 minutes at the Century Capitol multiplex in South San Jose. ``I was just getting into it when a screen went blank,'' complained Luis Ortiz. ``Blam. No warning or nothing. People just walked out of the theaters wondering what was going on.''

The most immediate cause of the blackouts was the heat.

In San Francisco, the 93-degree high recorded Monday exceeded the previous record of 91 degrees set on that date in 1987. Downtown Oakland's high of 89 degrees beat out the 1987 record by one degree. The 91-degree high recorded in Salinas outdid the previous high of 89 there in 1967. And in South Monterey, 89 degrees exceeded the old record of 84, set back in 1959.

The hot weather prompted many people to switch on their air conditioners, putting a heavy drain on the already severely crimped supply of power. Hot weather across the West also limited the amount of power the state normally imports from the Southwest by at least 500 megawatts -- or enough for about 375,000 homes, according to the ISO's McIntosh.

Nuclear plants off line

But an even bigger problem was the loss of four nuclear power plants. Two of them were in California: Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo, which is being refueled, and San Onofre in Southern California, which is undergoing repairs after a recent fire.

In addition, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station near Phoenix and the Columbia Generating Station in southeast Washington state were undergoing routine repairs.

All four plants are expected to be off line for several more weeks. Some California plants that run on natural gas had to shut down because of repair work on a natural gas pipeline near Ventura. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp said the utility was ordered to cut 120 megawatts in its service area, which meant the blackout affected about 54,000 homes and businesses from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. PG&E has 4.6 million electricity customers.

In the Bay Area, PG&E customers from San Francisco to San Jose lost power, but PG&E and police departments reported no major problems as a result of the blackouts. ``It was very quick. We got the order to restore and everything was back up,'' Ramp said.

At Sumitomo Tire in South San Francisco, Robert Tan was working in his sixth-floor office when the air conditioning slowly hummed to a halt. The company faced a previous round of rolling blackouts just a month ago, so Tan knew exactly how to cope.``No one's here, so we just unbuttoned our shirts,'' said Tan, who handles shipment orders. ``It's an inconvenience, but we all have to play a role'' in conserving energy, he said.

San Francisco suffered ``little bitty interruptions all over the city,'' but reported no problems, said Jim Aldrich, the city's emergency services coordinator.

The rolling blackouts hit parts of Fremont's Irvington district, but city officials said emergency crews were able to handle their traffic-snarling effect. Police monitored major intersections and planted temporary stop signs at others.``The blackouts are mainly a traffic issue and an inconvenience to businesses,'' said Vic Valdes, division chief with the Fremont Fire Department. ``We have an emergency contingency plan under which we've prioritized the major traffic intersections that we feel must be staffed during a blackout.''

Linda Clerkson, a spokeswoman for Palo Alto's city-owned utility, said it avoided blackouts by calling on major power users, including Hewlett-Packard, Agilent and Roche, to conserve. The regional water treatment plant kicked on a generator to help the city's power grid. ``This was totally not the big test,'' Clerkson said.

About 34,000 homes and businesses were blacked out in the territory served by Southern California Edison, which has 4.2 million electricity customers, and the prospect for trouble today ``looks a lot like'' Monday, said spokeswoman Karen Shepard-Grimes.

Conservation helped

Although the ISO's original warning on Monday morning led utilities to believe they might have to cut power to more than one outage block, Ramp said that ultimately only about a third of Block 14 was affected. PG&E has 14 blocks that are subject to rolling blackouts. The remainder of block 14 will be included in the next rolling blackouts, followed by customers in block 1.

Altogether, about 12,500 megawatts of power that is normally available to the state was offline Monday. McIntosh of the ISO said state officials hope to reduce that figure to about 2,500 megawatts by summer. But if they can't do that, he said, the state's ability to avoid future blackouts will largely hinge on how much people can conserve.

Businesses and other large customers helped Monday by agreeing to go on backup generators in exchange for lower utility rates. That saved about 850 megawatts, McIntosh said. He estimated that an additional 150 megawatts was saved by other customers who heard about the electricity emergency and voluntarily cut back on their electricity use.

Even so, Californians have done much better than that in the recent past, accounting for savings of up to 2,000 megawatts, according to state estimates. So while McIntosh thanked consumers Monday, he warned that they'll have to do even better this summer.``As we roll into the summer and the supply situation remains as it is, that's the only way,'' he said.

Mercury News reporters Brandon Bailey, Michael Bazeley, Chuck Carroll, Gil Jose Duran, Putsata Reang and Roxane Stites contributed to this report.

-- Swissrose (, May 08, 2001

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