Dan Walters: Serious blackouts coming -- and who will feel the dark and heat?

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Dan Walters: Serious blackouts coming -- and who will feel the dark and heat?

(Published May 22, 2001) A blast of summerlike heat sent the mercury soaring past the century mark in inland California on Monday and drove energy consumption sharply upward.

California's electrical system operator issued warnings about "continued deficiencies" in power reserves, but with no serious unplanned generator outages, officials were able to avoid service curtailments or power blackouts.

Monday's peak consumption was about three-quarters of what the state is likely to draw in midsummer, despite lavishly financed conservation programs, and everyone connected to California's energy crisis -- except those spinning rosy scenarios in the governor's office -- expects that the state will experience severe shortages.

Last week, the North American Electric Reliability Council predicted that California will see 15 hours of blackouts a week during the summer and the blackouts will be twice as widespread as any experienced thus far.

The Davis administration's official line is that with new power supplies coming on line and an aggressive conservation program, major disruptions can be avoided. But the more pessimistic view is dominating the consciousness of business executives and politicians, and there's an intense scramble under way to determine whose power will be cut off, and whose spared, during blackouts.

Should the utilities, the state Public Utilities Commission or the Legislature decide who would be exempted from blackouts? Will whole industries -- such as agriculture or biotechnology plants -- be spared? Will the state buy whatever power it needs at whatever price is being charged, if the juice is available, to avert blackouts? Or will the state, perhaps in conjunction with Oregon and Washington, impose its own cap on power prices and accept the longer blackouts that might result? Instead of waiting for blackouts to happen because of consumption spikes and power shortages, should the state simply plan on blackouts to save juice, with ample warning? What provisions will be made for those who can't afford their higher power bills, or whose life-support systems, such as respirators, are dependent on continuous power?

These are but a few of the many questions being raised as the summer draws closer and the prospect of serious blackouts becomes more ominous.

The Independent System Operator, which is the traffic cop for California's electricity grid and is now under Gov. Gray Davis' direct control, implicitly recognized the growing anxiety about blackouts Monday by proposing a new system of warning Californians when the juice is likely to stop flowing, using the Internet, the news media and other channels of communication. Davis himself, meanwhile, spent the day in Chicago, supposedly to gain knowledge on managing blackouts from city officials who saw 450 of their residents die from an unexpected midsummer power outage in 1995.

Perhaps the most far reaching of the power shortage management ideas kicking around is one under which the state would set a cap on the price it will pay for power and stage planned blackouts to compensate for the shortages. Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the originator of the plan, arguing that it would both save precious power-purchase dollars and give Californians more time to prepare themselves for blackouts. He talks disdainfully of the "highly disruptive random rolling blackouts" now occurring when the state falls short of juice.

GOP Assemblyman Mike Briggs of Fresno, meanwhile, proposes that the Public Utilities Commission notify businesses and householders weeks in advance of planned blackouts.

The interconnected notions of price caps and planned blackouts appear to be gaining political traction. Even the White House has suggested privately that California set its own price ceiling rather than look to the federal government to step in. If nothing else, it's an indication that the politics of rationing are now taking hold in the Capitol -- a new way of looking at shortages that also could be applied to water, transportation and other commodities and services in short supply.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 23, 2001


I don't see where they have a lot of choice. Price caps might mean that Reliant just doesn't sell to them. I wouldn't... especially since they (CA) have not paid for the power received. Its only fair to individuals and businesses alike to have a schedule that they can work around. After all, many, many countries do this as a matter of daily living.

-- Taz (Tassie123@aol.com), May 23, 2001.

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