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More than 40% avoid blackouts

By Jim Wasserman The Fresno Bee

(Published May 15, 2001) In the weird, uncharted waters of California's power crisis, there are two kinds of electrical customers: 58% who will endure rotating blackouts and 42% who won't.

Which one you are -- sweating it out with no air conditioning or comfortably unaffected and watching TV -- depends a lot on luck. Only in the hidden secrets of 2,900 electrical circuits across Central and Northern California is there any kind of reason to it.

As police and fire stations, airports and hospitals are automatically exempt from rotating outages, their protected status carries along millions of customers sharing the same circuit. Yet contrary to popular belief, living near a hospital or fire station is no guarantee of a free pass against blackouts. _____More Info _____

California Power Crisis

What is normally exempt from blackouts:

Government and agencies providing fire, police and prison service.

Government agencies essential to national defense.

Hospitals with more than 100 beds.

Communication utilities relating to public health, welfare and security, including telephone utilities.

Facilities for commercial air and sea operations.

Electric utilities and services needed to provide power.

Radio and television stations that broadcast emergency messages.

Water and sewage treatment utilities.

Source: California Public Utilities Commission On Green Acres Drive in northeast Fresno, next to Fresno Fire Station 13, Henri Brandon faces blackouts alongside the other 58% of Fresno County.

"We're in Block 11," she says. She points to the back of the house, where they're putting up awnings. "This," she says, "is what we're doing to conserve."

Likewise, about a half-mile away on Niles Avenue, within view of the towering communications antenna at Station 13, homeowner Lee Sanchez also confesses to belonging to Block 11.

"We got hit, too, when we blacked out," he says. "But I noticed the lights were on across the street."

Indeed, this is becoming a defining characteristic of the California power crisis. On the massive grid that covers the state, utility officials explain, everyone is linked to something else. A typical power substation may contain five separate circuits. So houses on the same street, parts of shopping centers, even tenants in the same building are not affected the same way. Fresno County's share of the statewide power grid has 167 circuits subject to outages and 105 that are exempt.

"It could be across the street that someone is on a different circuit than you," says Pacific Gas & Electric spokeswoman Christy Dennis.

Explains Dennis: "On peoples' bills, it will show rotating outage blocks and the numbers 1 to 14. If it says 50, you are on an exempt circuit." Likewise, if the area is blank below the customer name, you're also exempt.

In PG&E's vast territory from the Oregon border to the Grapevine, 2 million customers are exempt from outages, the utility says. Their relief is balanced by 2.8 million who pick up the slack -- contending with rotating sessions of unworkable cash registers and no air conditioning. Among Fresno County's 355,000 PG&E customers, Dennis said 184,172 are subject to blackouts while 171,352 are exempt.

Among the exempt is Rogers Jewelers at Fashion Fair mall.

"We went through this whole procedure to know what to do, and now we don't have to," says Rogers office manager Ree Rising.

Adds mall receptionist Mary Ann Nicassio: "Our mall is divided. Some parts can be down while other parts are up. We have it color-coded," she says. "There is an area that is pink and that is exempt."

Laurie Koike, general manager at Fashion Fair, explains: "To our knowledge, it's in three different blocks -- 2, 11 and exempt."

Manchester Center general manager Bruce Peter says, "Once they started doing blackouts, we looked it all up and we couldn't figure out why the whole mall wasn't going down."

What they learned was great news, raising a new issue of competitive advantage in the age of outages.

"A majority of the mall is in 50, which is exempt," Peter says. "Some of the tenants are in Block 1, but the common area of the mall is exempt. People are welcome to come if there are rolling blackouts and stay. There's enough food."

As summer continues, these inequalities could reach boiling points. At Southern California Edison, which provides power to more than 150,000 customers in Tulare, Kings and Kern counties, SCE region manager Glen Cardaronella says the rules may change again as they changed in March.

"The Public Utilities Commission is looking at this again," he says. "It's felt among the remaining customers who aren't on a circuit with one of these agencies or business that it's somewhat unfair."

The PUC estimates that nearly 6 million customers statewide "are exempt from outage only because they share a circuit with an essential customer."

The commission has asked utilities to consider reconfiguring their circuits and include thousands more "nonessential" customers in rotating outages. Documents show the commission wants to spread the blackouts more fairly.

PG&E, meanwhile, estimates a cost of $500,000 to $1 million to reconfigure each of its 2,900 circuits. Dennis says that cost would be huge for a company in bankruptcy proceedings.

"We're under Chapter 11 right now," she says, "and we're trying to do every cash conservation we can."

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6317.,1737,266738.html,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, May 15, 2001


I have a great solution for the Blackouts. Make everybody exempt then no more blackouts. I must call the Governor and let him know how easy it is to fix the problem.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 15, 2001.

He could call Immenient Domain over the power grid, I believe we're headed that way.....

-- CAkidd (, May 16, 2001.

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