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California Blackout Season Begins

by JENNIFER COLEMAN, Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California's newest season -- blackout season -- is here, and it arrived earlier than expected.

State officials had anticipated a crunch in June, when air conditioners are cranked up for summer weather. But already, California has been hit with back-to-back blackouts on Monday and Tuesday, and the operators of the state's power grid barely scraped together enough energy to avoid blackouts Wednesday.

''We're definitely in blackout season,'' said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumer Action Network. ''Right now, there's almost a disbelieving frustration that is going to elevate quickly to downright irritable if we go through a summer of this.''

Grid officials expected fewer problems Thursday, when temperatures were expected to cool slightly and a large power plant was to return to service.

Hot weather, a high number of power plants down for maintenance and little power available from other states led to rolling blackouts this week that affected hundreds of thousands of customers.

Experts expect a long, hot summer of similar drills -- calls for conservation, followed by blackouts. California has had six days of rolling blackouts so far this year, and state regulators are forecasting at least 30 more this summer.

For consumers, the early start of the season has created a mixture of resignation and exasperation. ''The first day we have a hot day we have an energy crisis,'' said San Francisco resident Dee Ann Hendrix. ''I hate to say this, but it's getting to be a way of life in California.''

Fe Burian, 46, who moved to San Francisco from the Philippines, said the blackouts had not affected her yet, ''but I come from a Third World country so I know how it is.''

It has been a year since consumers in San Diego got the first dose of shortages and higher costs. Since then, Gov. Gray Davis and other leaders have tried to deal with the crisis with mixed results.

The state has spent $4.7 billion since January to buy power for its two largest cash-strapped utilities. On Wednesday, the Legislature approved the sale of $13.4 billion in revenue bonds to buy electricity.

Last month, the state Public Utilities Commission approved the biggest rate increase in California history: up to 46 percent for customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Under a plan proposed Wednesday by PUC President Loretta Lynch, the increase would be structured so that residential customers who use the most electricity would face average rate hikes of 35 percent to 40 percent, while industrial users could face increases of 50 percent or more.

In February, Davis streamlined the permit process for new power plants and created an ambitious conservation program to head off summer blackouts. But the governor's plan to have 5,000 megawatts of new power online by midsummer is unrealistic, said Michael Zenker, director of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consulting firm.

''There's no basis in fact in that number. We expect between 750 to 1,000 new megawatts,'' he said. A megawatt is roughly enough power for 750 homes.

Zenker's organization predicted several months ago that the state would see 200 days of severe shortages this summer and 20 days of blackouts. But since then, the forecast has gotten bleaker because drought in the Northwest is expected to reduce output from hydroelectric plants.

''Any sort of warm weather will be enough to push us into blackouts,'' Zenker said.

As for conservation, it will make blackouts shorter and less severe, Shames said, ''but it won't stop the blackouts from happening.''

Meanwhile, a judge said Wednesday that PG&E can continue paying its natural gas suppliers, even as other creditors wait to recoup billions of dollars from the utility.

The decision allows PG&E, which last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, to buy gas that it sells to homes and businesses.

-- Swissrose (, May 10, 2001

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