Riverside draws a power line in the sand

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Posted at 8:45 p.m. PDT Friday, June 8, 2001

Riverside joins power struggle by refusing rolling blackouts


RIVERSIDE -- With one vote, council members in this city of 250,000 drew a power line in the sand.

Riverside, which operates its own utility system, said it would do everything it could to help the state when power was in short supply, with one exception: no rolling blackouts.

The lights will stay on for the 90,000 customers of Riverside Public Utility, the eight-person city council vowed in an act of defiance that sent the message that not all Californians are in this together.

``We're standing up for our residents,'' said Riverside Mayor Ronald Loveridge, as he sat in his seventh-floor office overlooking the city's historic downtown area about 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

Riverside officials say they weren't trying to rock the boat or pick a fight with Gov. Gray Davis with last month's vote. Riverside wasn't the first of California's 31 municipal systems to tell the Independent System Operator that it would ignore calls for rolling blackouts, but it is the largest -- and the only one to put its stance on the public record. Lodi made headlines in March as the first municipal system to say no to rolling blackouts, and this week a spokesman for the city of Alameda said it, too, was inclined to join the resistance movement.

In Riverside, officials say they just want to do what is best for their customers, and right now that means keeping the air conditioners running even if it means the rest of the state might suffer more during the energy shortage.

Loveridge maintains the city is doing its part to reduce power demand. Riverside has invested close to $3 million to develop conservation programs and incentives to businesses to cut consumption when necessary. Utility director Tom Evans estimated those reductions are enough to free 20 megawatts of power for use in other parts of the state when needed. That's enough to light 15,000 homes -- but may fall short of the amount the ISO demands when it calls for rolling blackouts.

``We think we're doing everything reasonable to solve the problem,'' Evans said. ``What we're saying here, is that there's a limit to how far we're willing to go.''

And residents agree.

A summer of rolling blackouts would be especially difficult in Riverside, they say. Air conditioning is a must in this Inland Empire community where temperatures easily top 100 during the summer.

``I can imagine life without lights, but I can't imagine the summer without air conditioning,'' said Barbara Diaz, who has lived in Riverside for most of her 53 years.

Officials in Riverside, which was the center of the state's citrus industry before the subdivisions and shopping malls took root, say they don't think they'll be punished for saying no to rolling blackouts. But they concede their commitment to customer service could land them in court.

The legal dispute would involve contracts all but three of the state's municipal utilities signed with the California Independent System Operator, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. or other entities for power transmission. Los Angeles, which operates its own transmission lines, is exempt, as are Burbank and Glendale, which use Los Angeles's system.

The state and investor-owned utilities maintain that those contracts require the cities to abide by rolling blackout orders during a system emergency. But the municipal utilities argue that the state's power crisis is economic in nature and does not constitute a genuine system emergency, such as one caused by an earthquake or fire. If that should occur, the rebel systems say they would all pitch in.

Vernon, a city just east of Los Angeles, is leading the fight on the federal level, asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to grant all municipal systems an exemption to rolling blackouts.

Gov. Davis already has shown little patience with municipal utilities on a different issue. Last week, the governor blasted municipal operations for price gouging and threatened to seize power from them if they refused to cooperate and sell energy at a reasonable price.

Davis' spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said Wednesday that the governor's office had no comment on the rolling blackout issue. Instead, he said, the governor was focusing all efforts on securing enough power to keep the state's lights burning.

Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the ISO, said that if more communities follow Riverside, it could mean customers of other utilities will experience more outages of potentially longer duration.

``If not everyone participates, then it make the job more difficult,'' he said. ``We know that some of the munis are not happy with this situation.''

While Alameda is inclined to reject rolling blackouts, the other two city-owned utilities in the Bay Area say they have no intention of following Riverside's example. Officials in Santa Clara and Palo Alto say they hope to avoid rolling blackouts through conservation efforts, but if push came to shove, they would abide with blackout orders.

Larry Owens, manager of customer services for Silicon Valley Power, Santa Clara's municipal utility, said he understands Riverside's point of view. While no utility wants to cut off service to its customers, he thinks it's important for everyone to pitch in, otherwise the consequences could be dire.

``It's kind of the lifeboat analogy,'' he said. ``If one person in a lifeboat says we're not paddling, you still have a chance of survival. But if everyone says they're not paddling, then we're sunk.''

For Mayor Loveridge, the whole mess comes down to one main question: ``Whose lights do you worry about?'' he said. ``The council's position is basically that we need to keep the lights on in Riverside.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 09, 2001


Every group that attempts to exempt itself from controlled "rolling" blackouts increases the number of "mission critical" applications, with potential cascading infrastructure disruption effects, that can't be properly exempted. These rogue groups can probably be sued for very high Damages, if augmented infrastructure disruption cascading effects do occur.

Don't these communities realize the potential civil liability they may be up against? Members of these communities should speak up NOW, to protect their homes and businesses from potentially confiscatory judgments. And individuals in such communities should VOLUNTARILY "Black Out" during system crises, to protect self, and have a potential affirmative defense against having to "chip in" to pay the Damage Judgment; and keep good records as evidence.

Disclaimer: This may or may not be an accurate statement of the Law. I am not an attorney, and this is not to be construed as being legal advice. It is a "better safe than sorry" type precautionary alert. Only an attorney can advise definitively as to what your individual potential liability is, and how to mitigate it.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), June 10, 2001.

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