(CA) - Planned Plant Shutdowns Easing, Boosting State's Power Supply

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Planned Plant Shutdowns Easing, Boosting State's Power Supply (AP) --

California's electricity production should improve in the coming weeks as more power plants come back on line after spring maintenance shutdowns, the state's grid operator said Monday. That, coupled with conservation efforts detailed by state officials Sunday, could help during this summer's high temperatures, independent observers said -- but not enough to stave off blackouts.

"We still find blackouts are inevitable," said Michael Zenker of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy research and consulting organization. "There just isn't enough generation available."

By mid-June, every existing plant is scheduled to be producing power. That contrasts with a historic high this spring when about a third of the state's power generation was unavailable due to scheduled or emergency shutdowns.

The high number of shuttered plants prompted state officials to suggest power generators were deliberately withholding electricity to drive up prices, and Gov. Gray Davis to order inspectors into plants to make sure generators weren't cheating.

Generators objected, saying they have run their plants so hard since last year that routine maintenance was overdue, which caused more unplanned breakdowns.

Last Thursday, for instance, when California came within a hair of a seventh day of statewide blackouts, one of Duke Energy's 750-megawatt Moss Landing units began springing boiler leaks.

"We almost lost it that day because we'd been putting off scheduled maintenance for so long," said company spokesman Tom Williams. "You can nurse those along for a while, but after a while they'll trip (off-line) and they'll do it during the peak of the summer."

The Independent System Operator, which runs the power grid, says equipment breakdowns typically account for about 2,500 megawatts being off-line on any given day. Forced outages stripped the power grid of 2,673 megawatts Monday.

The power grid was short 4,144 megawatts due to planned shutdowns Monday, beating the Independent System Operator's projections that 5,800 megawatts would be unavailable. That was down from 9,800 megawatts off-line for scheduled maintenance when the state narrowly avoided rolling blackouts Thursday.

By comparison, California was expected to use about 31,000 megawatts of power during its afternoon peak period Monday, and top out at about 31,800 megawatts Tuesday afternoon. The 4,144 megawatts unavailable due to planned shutdowns Monday would have powered about 3.1 million homes.

The ISO projects that in a week, about 3,000 megawatts should be down for maintenance, said ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle. "It looks like we're on target with our goal of getting the planned maintenance down to zero by mid-June."

More generation, however, "doesn't mean consumers can cut back on their conservation, because at the same time more plants come on line, temperatures continue to rise," McCorkle said. By summer's peak in August and September, California can be using more than 45,000 megawatts.

Californians cut their electricity use by 11 percent overall, and by about 10 percent during peak demand hours last month compared to the same month last year, the California Energy Commission said Sunday. In addition, the Davis administration said has signed more power contracts, and the price of that power is falling.

"All that's good news. We're moving in the right direction," said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California, Berkeley's energy institute. However, "the amount of conservation we're going to need in the late summer is even greater than we have now. We've got a long stretch ahead of us."

Planned maintenance shutdowns this winter and spring helped prompt six days of rolling blackouts, said ISO spokesman Gregg Fishman. The ISO recently delayed installation of pollution control equipment at five plants until winter so those plants can operate through the hot summer months.

"The idea is the plants go down mainly in the springtime, because usually there's the hydro(electricity) there to replace them," Fishman said. But not with this year's water and snowfall shortage: "We got squeezed a couple of times because of the hydro shortage either here (in California) or in the Northwest."

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), June 05, 2001

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