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Will this attempt at blackout "Triage" be successful?

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Published Tuesday, May 22, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Copyright, San Jose Mercury News, Fair Use for Education and Research Only

BY JOHN WOOLFOLK, San Jose Mercury News

Under pressure to give more notice before pulling the plug, California's power grid managers Monday proposed issuing alerts a half-hour before blackouts and forecasting the likelihood of outages a day in advance.

The Independent System Operator's proposal heartened business leaders who say unexpected rolling blackouts have cost them millions of dollars.

But the proposal disappointed consumer advocates and some lawmakers who hoped grid officials would consider their suggestion to schedule rolling blackouts days or weeks in advance.

Grid officials compared their proposal to the weather forecasts that alert Midwesterners to tornadoes, and cautioned that the predictions are subject to change.

``It's akin to a severe storm watch and a severe storm warning,'' said Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the ISO, which will consider the proposal Thursday. ``We try to give as much hard information as soon as we can. But there are days where those things are going to change very quickly.''

Business leaders said a half-hour warning, even if it's a false alarm, would be better than the two to six minutes they got during the last round of rolling blackouts in April.

``We're happy with what the ISO is trying to do,'' said Gino DiCaro, spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. ``It's making a bad situation a little better.''

But critics said the proposal changes little and, with frequent blackouts expected this summer, urged the state to instead schedule them in advance.

``It's actually quite distressing and disappointing,'' said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network, which proposed scheduling blackouts. ``If the public is looking for better information on blackouts, they'll have to look elsewhere.''

State Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, whose energy committee is considering notification issues today, agreed.

``It's not the report I was expecting, but 30 minutes of notice is certainly better than two,'' Bowen said.

The idea of scheduling blackouts is gaining ground among state lawmakers, who say it would let people know when to expect outages and also force down runaway power prices by dampening demand.

The grid operator didn't propose scheduled blackouts because lawmakers haven't yet agreed on the concept.

``It's in the talking stage,'' Fishman said. ``There's nothing firm.''

Rolling blackouts, in which utilities cut power from one block of customers for an hour or so and then move to the next block, protect the system from total failure when demand threatens to overwhelm supplies. Systemwide failure could take days to fix.

Bad summer forecast

Californians have had six days of rolling blackouts this year and will likely see many more this summer, as power-guzzling air conditioners drive demand as much as 3,700 megawatts over available supplies. A megawatt can power about 1,000 homes.

The ISO highlights the potential for blackouts through progressive emergency stages. Stage 3, the highest level, indicates rolling blackouts are possible.

Grid managers alert utilities and public safety officials to conditions by e-mail, pager, telephone, radio and Internet postings, and notify the public through news broadcasts.

To date, two-thirds of consumers say they're more concerned about power prices than rolling blackouts, according to a Field Poll released today. But more than seven in 10 expect to be inconvenienced by the outages expected this summer, the poll found.

``People in general are much more willing to tolerate blackouts if they know they're going to happen,'' said Guy Phillips, energy aide to Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Fred Keeley, D-Santa Cruz.

The nature of the electric system makes advance notice of blackouts difficult, grid officials said. California is so short of power that weather changes and power plant shutdowns can dramatically affect the outlook.

On Monday, the state avoided blackouts amid soaring temperatures because of power imported from other states and cooler weather in Southern California, said ISO spokeswoman Lorie O'Donley. That could change as Southern California heats up today and Wednesday, but blackouts aren't expected, barring a sudden plant failure or drop in imports, she said.

National Weather Service forecasters expect a high of 90 degrees in San Jose today, with a low in the upper 50s tonight.

Under Monday's ISO proposal, grid managers would commit to issuing a 30-minute notice of ``probable interruptions,'' identifying the affected utilities and how much power they must cut. It still would be up to the utilities to determine which areas would be affected.

The ISO also would issue 24-hour grid advisories. If the ISO expects a Stage 1 or 2 emergency the next day, grid managers will issue a ``Power Watch.'' If there is a 50 percent or greater chance of a Stage 3 emergency the next day, the ISO will declare a ``Power Warning.''

In addition, the ISO would bolster the ``system conditions'' report on its Web page by adding available supply figures. The report now lists only actual and forecast demand. Customers also would be able to sign up for hourly e-mail updates.

ISO officials also are looking into contracts with notification services offering to alert customers to grid conditions by request through phones, faxes, e-mails or pagers.

``We spent the last four months designing this with businesses for businesses,'' said ISO board member Carl Guardino, who also heads the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.

The blackouts that hit the Bay Area on June 14 cost Silicon Valley businesses $100 million, Guardino said, adding that he expects the ISO to approve the proposals by month's end.

`Chance to do something'

``Every time the lights go out, companies see red,'' Guardino said. ``Half an hour actually gives you a chance to do something. You can deploy police officers to intersections. You can power down assembly lines.''

Others say that's not enough.

``I want 30 days' warning,'' said Assemblyman Mike Briggs, R-Fresno, who plans to introduce a bill today that would schedule each utility outage block for a day when blackouts are possible.

That would help farmers, who must have power on specific days for water delivery and crop processing, Briggs said.

State Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, has a bill scheduled for discussion today calling for the state to set a ceiling on what it will pay for power and to schedule outages the next day if there aren't enough sellers at that price.

Guardino said the ISO isn't ruling out scheduled blackouts, but is concerned that such an approach could result in unnecessary outages.

Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, believes the ISO proposal is a good idea in any case.

``Doing everything we can to let people know what's likely to happen is important,'' said Paul Hefner, a Hertzberg aide, ``whether or not we can go forward with some sort of scheduled blackout.''

Staff Writer Frank Sweeney contributed to this report.

-- Robert Riggs (, May 23, 2001


I predict that now that they are going to give consumers notice of when and who will be affected during blackouts that certain criminal elements will take advantage of the blackout.

-- Guy Daley (, May 23, 2001.

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