Blackout Plans of Little Help in California's Energy Crisis : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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May 14, 2001

Blackout Plans of Little Help in California's Energy Crisis

By JAMES STERNGOLD IRVINE, Calif., May 13 This spotless city of 148,000 people an hour's drive south of Los Angeles is the largest planned community in the country, with a web of freeways feeding autos into neat patterns of eight-lane boulevards that, on normal days, are almost a balletic composition in traffic management.

But last week the picture was a little different. Irvine's broad avenues had been transformed into a knot of eight-lane parking lots by a rolling power blackout, just the first of what experts predict will be dozens this summer because of California's power shortages. The hundreds of computer-operated traffic lights here were blank witnesses to the morass, as were the city's police officers, who arrived at some major intersections only to watch helplessly until the electricity was switched back on an hour later.

Charles Brobeck, the chief of police, explained the one-sided arithmetic he was up against. Irvine has 279 signal intersections and only 160 officers on the police force, with only a portion of them on duty at one time. As a result, he said, "we're too badly outnumbered to do much," in spite of hundreds of hours spent planning for the blackouts.

"When we get notice that these things are coming it's like being told that in 10 minutes there's an asteroid that's going to hit us," Chief Brobeck said. "We know it's five million miles from earth, and it's going to hit, but we're not quite sure when or exactly where."

Last week gave just a hint of the improvisational tap dances local governments are going to have to do all summer to cope with the rolling blackouts. Municipalities across the state, the principal lines of defense against chaos, have spent the last several months meticulously planning what they can plan. That has meant crash energy conservation programs and steps to ensure that critical services like the police and fire departments and computer centers remain in operation at all times.

But local officials said there was precious little their governments could do beyond that during the predictably unpredictable but brief blackouts, usually an hour long.

Southern California's experience with earthquakes and wildfires has helped instill a sense of preparedness, but only to a degree. Because the patchworklike blackouts are short-lived and require pinpoint actions rather than wide-scale mobilization, officials said, they are fundamentally more challenging.

The incidents last week offered two perfect examples, said Ronald Mohr, an energy analyst with the Los Angeles County government.

On Tuesday, he had just minutes' notice that blocks of the county's power system were about to be blacked out by the local utility, Southern California Edison, except he was not sure which blocks, or for precisely how long, or exactly when it would happen.

He had seconds to notify the most important of the county government's 87,000 employees, but without using telephones, because that would take too long, as he had discovered on previous blackouts, and without sending too many e-mail messages at once, because that would cause the system to crash.

And then there was Wednesday. Again, Mr. Mohr received notice of imminent blackouts from Southern California Edison, bringing another round of frantic measures, except this time it turned out to be a false alarm.

"My entire life has been turned upside down," Mr. Mohr said. He explained that taking part in energy policy had been such a ponderously slow process in the past that it could take him four days to prepare a short letter.

"We've been working 14-, 16-hour days." he said. "My boss just missed his anniversary. The main thing is that before, with emergency procedures, you knew the rules. Everything was stable. You took a manual off a shelf. There is no manual for a one-hour blackout."

Traffic may be the worst problem in the blackouts. For instance, in Ventura, just north of here, the streets immediately came close to gridlock on Tuesday, and officials could only counsel patience.

"We just leave the intersections dark," said Ronald Calkins, director of the city's Department of Public Works. "The motorists just have to know that they are supposed to treat it as a four-way stop. We thought about using portable stop signs, but it takes too long. By the time you get the stuff out the lights are back on."

In Irvine, there were three fender benders during Tuesday's blackout; in Santa Monica, one car was rammed so hard at an intersection that it flipped over.

Eileen Salmon, Irvine's emergency coordinator, said the best that could be done, once care is taken to make sure essential services keep running, was to communicate, but even doing that can be problematic. Ms. Salmon said that last Tuesday she received several false alarms before the blackouts, making her responses something of a guessing game.

She said most city operations were just told to wait out the blackouts. Schools, she said, do nothing special; and city employees just take a break for the most part.

Allison Hart, the Irvine city manager, said the lack of specific advance information from Southern California Edison was another problem.

The utilities have said that they do not identify which areas will lose power in advance because of concerns that criminals might take advantage of the situation by looting or breaking into buildings.

"If you think the possibility of looting or something is worse than the devastating economic uncertainty of being hit by unpredictable rolling blackouts in the sixth-largest economy in the world, I just think you're wrong," Ms. Hart said, adding that business groups have said they would prefer more notice as well.

The municipalities usually have backup diesel generators at critical sites, but even using those can pose difficulties. Many city officials said that as they get warnings that power is running short, they are inclined to fire up their generators early so that important facilities will never lose electricity.

But state air quality rules restrict how long the cities can operate the generators, usually to 200 hours a year. If the generators are left running an hour or two every time there is a warning, as happened on Wednesday, the officials fear they will waste precious operating time.

Mr. Mohr said that perhaps the greatest trial would be keeping municipal employees alert in a summer when emergency warnings would be the norm. Already, he said, officials are struggling against complacency.

"Please don't let a lazy or indifferent attitude develop due to the false predictions," Mr. Mohr pleaded in a mass e-mail message sent after Wednesday's near miss.

Then he added, "This will be the last message tonight, unless conditions deteriorate."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 14, 2001

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