45 percent of customers to avoid PG&E outages

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Posted at 1:27 a.m. PDT Tuesday, June 19, 2001

45 percent of customers to avoid PG&E outages Those close to high-priority facilities are lucky BY DANA HULL AND CHRIS O'BRIEN Mercury News

The threat of rolling blackouts that comes with this week's expected high temperatures means nothing to nearly half of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s electricity customers.

They're all in Block 50, the coveted designation for power users largely exempted from blackouts because they share circuits with essential customers such as hospitals, fire stations or military bases. More than 2 million of PG&E's 4.6 million electric customers, or close to 45 percent, are in Block 50.

New color-coded county maps, made public for the first time this weekend by PG&E and available online, detail the full extent of the different outage blocks and how they span residential neighborhoods. Large swaths of land throughout the Bay Area -- from San Francisco's financial district to western Alameda County to Gilroy -- are in Block 50.

Violet Freitas made the pleasant discovery this past week that her new apartment, just south of the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, is exempt from blackouts.

``We brag,'' Freitas said.

Although blackouts never came Monday, they are still a possibility today.

Meanwhile, thousands of businesses -- from tattoo parlors to nursing homes -- have asked state regulators to exempt them from blackouts.

Who deserves Block 50 status has generated fierce debate as the Public Utilities Commission attempts to balance business concerns against the necessity of keeping a pool of customers that it can black out during electricity shortages.

While the debate rages, real estate agents are poised to use the maps as a selling point.

``The most critical thing will be if people are in Block 50,'' said Steve Hanleigh, chairman of the California Association of Realtors Energy Crisis Task Force. ``Builders and homeowners can use Block 50 status as a salable feature. A consistent supply of power is one more thing that can justify a decision to buy.''

200,000 per block

At first glance, the PG&E maps look like a patchwork quilt, with vast tracts of land as well as specific neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs marked in different colors. But the blocks are not simply geographic, nor are they contiguous: Each of the 14 blocks serves about 200,000 customers, and portions of Blocks 1-14 as well as Block 50 are scattered throughout Northern California.

``There are more blocks in urban areas then there are in rural areas,'' said Staci Homrig of PG&E. ``It's more about electric load than geography. There are wide patches of parkland in places like Contra Costa County that don't have any electric customers.''

In a triangle of San Jose bound by Interstate 280 and Highway 17, a large section of Block 50 near Valley Medical Center bumps up against a portion of Block 1 -- the next segment of the PG&E power grid up for a blackout.

The residents of Randolph Street, east of Bascom Avenue, awoke Monday to warnings from the state that blackouts could be imminent and would hit Block 1 first. This caused plenty of confusion in the neighborhood.

Several residents had heard the warning but had no idea which block they were in. Others insisted they were in Block 9 and not in immediate danger.

Others said they had recently been switched from Block 9 to Block 1 and worried that several of their neighbors weren't aware of the change.

Mike Gradis and Alexandra Adams heard the warning Monday and logged onto the computer to sign up for the alerts that were available via e-mail. While they see the outages as minor inconveniences, the couple have been obsessive about changing their energy habits since the middle school where they teach was hit with rolling blackouts in January.

By switching to energy-efficient lights, doing laundry at odd hours, not leaving outdoor lights on overnight and shutting down their computers when not in use, the couple say they've cut their power bills in half since last summer.

``We've changed our lifestyle where we could,'' Adams said. ``It's made a big difference.''

Luck of the draw

Along Bascom near Fruitdale Avenue, Tracey Thao Bui could relax because her computer store, Pixel USA, shares a circuit with the nearby medical center.

That doesn't mean Pixel isn't doing its part to help the state ride out the energy crisis, she said. The company has turned down the air conditioning, is replacing its light bulbs with more energy-efficient models and has turned off most of the computers on display.

``We just found out that we're exempt,'' Bui said. ``We feel lucky.''

The new maps may make the circuitry more clear for many utility users. But PG&E has been anxious about making public the maps and did so only under order from Gov. Gray Davis.

One worry is that criminals, particularly those who might plan home invasions or bank robberies, can now target specific neighborhoods if they know where blackouts may hit.

``Our concern all along has been that people would use it for bad intentions,'' Homrig said. ``The bank robber could rob a bank knowing the alarms will be off. That's been our concern in terms of making this public, but we had to comply with the governor's order.''

Plan around blackouts

But many law enforcement officials dismiss that idea and say that publicizing the information will make the region safer. Consumers and businesses will be better-equipped to plan around blackouts, and commuters can avoid busy intersections if they know that certain traffic lights are not working.

``I don't think you're going to see any increase in crime at all,'' San Jose Police Chief Bill Landsdowne said. ``It's more of a problem when you don't know what intersections are going to be out.''

Many consumers who are in Block 50 now think they are safe for the summer. But PG&E stresses that outage block designations are subject to change at any time.

No one knows that better than Sharon Turzo, a Los Gatos resident who logged onto the PG&E Web site Monday to see who shared her block.

``We used to be in Block 50, and now we're in Block 7,'' Turzo said. ``We first got Block 7 on our bill a few months ago. I'm not going to rant and rave and kick, but this is the first time we have not been exempt.''

If a statewide heat wave triggers rolling blackouts today, PG&E will begin pulling the plug on customers in Block 1 and then move on to Block 2.

``This whole week will be challenging,'' said Lorie O'Donley of the California Independent System Operator, which had forecast blackouts as a possibility Monday. ``The temperatures will be hovering around the triple-digit marks.



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 19, 2001


With all those exemptions, what kind of blackout policy is that?

-- LillyLP (lilyLP@aol.com), June 20, 2001.

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