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Blackout Forecasts' Dark Side

If optimists are wrong and the power runs out, California's energy crisis could quickly cost lives and cripple the economy.

By JENIFER WARREN, Times Staff Writer

It's here. Summer 2001, the blackout season, is only a day away. Already Californians anticipate power outages when temperatures rise. By August, the occasional annoyances endured so far--stoplights gone dark, computers, air conditioners and elevators idled--could seem almost quaint.

Gov. Gray Davis insists we needn't worry. Four large new power plants are firing up soon, he said, and government's best and brightest are locking up still more megawatts to help meet our peak summer need. Californians, Davis predicts, will valiantly heed his call to conserve, helping the state survive the hot months, no sweat.

With luck, he'll be right. Power prices have stabilized, and some energy analysts are wondering whether California may have tamed the blackout beast. But what if those plants don't get built in time, people don't trim their electricity use 7% and energy imports are more meager than expected? And what if the state gets hit by a summer that is not moderately hot, as Davis bets, but blistering, record-setting hot?

Government experts who ponder such questions don't expect disaster in the coming months. But they are planning for it nonetheless. At best, they say, Californians can expect some gridlocked intersections, an occasionally overloaded 911 system, perhaps some business bankruptcies, certainly inconvenience. At worst, the Western power grid could crash, causing uncontrolled blackouts that might lead to looting, contaminated water supplies, even civil unrest.

"How bad could this summer get?" said state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). "This summer could be the worst disaster to ever hit the state of California." Imagine it's a Thursday morning in the third week of July. Relentless heat grips California, the curse of a stubborn high-pressure ridge that just won't budge.

As air conditioners from Redding to Chula Vista lumber to life, managers of the state's power grid in Folsom gulp their third and fourth cups of coffee, stare at a bank of computers and begin to fret. Demand is jumping. Supply is static, Canada and Arizona have nothing to sell. It's looking tight.

Thirty minutes later, the picture is gloomier. A brush fire shuts down transmission lines near Fresno, squeezing supply in the Central Valley. In the Bay Area, the unusual heat drives demand well past projections.

By noon things look bleak. Operators of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo have cut output by 80%. The trouble? Chunks of kelp have lodged in one of the plant's seawater intake valves, creating a clog like one that plagued the facility in January.

With a chorus of groans, the grid's keepers scour the market for power to offset the Diablo loss. No luck. As the mercury climbs and the Golden State economy roars into full swing, electricity consumption ticks upward, minute by minute. And when managers of a power plant near Long Beach cut output because of a cracked turbine, everyone knows what it means. Alert the utilities. It's lights out, California, for the fourth day in a row.

Dr. J. Michael Leary dreads blackouts--not personally, but professionally. Leary is an emergency room physician in the desert city of Rancho Mirage. When air conditioners go on the blink there, the victims--scores of them, mostly old folks--wind up in his ER. In a normal year, 75% of his emergency patients are geriatrics. Like infants, the elderly are unusually vulnerable to the heat. When blackouts hit, they are most at risk. "It's as if you lived in Maine and they turned the heat off in January," Leary said. "This is an extreme environment we live in. The effects can be devastating."

Many desert seniors are on fixed incomes and live in mobile homes, some of them poorly insulated boxes that turn into ovens under the brutal summer sun. Take away the air conditioning and the humans inside start baking, quick.

For Leary, the specter of continual, back-to-back blackouts in July -- and, some predict, in June and August too--conjures images of an 82-year-old man, living alone in one of those mobile homes, taking medication for heart disease. The cardiovascular drugs plague the man with numerous side effects; one inhibits his body's ability to cool itself.

When a person gets overheated, body temperature eventually rises uncontrollably. Then comes a nasty spiral of effects, and pretty soon "you go into shock," Leary said. "Everything just shuts down." On average each year, 371 Americans die from heat-related causes, more than the number killed by earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning and floods combined. In 1995, a record hot spell in Chicago killed 465 people. Eleven Californians died from the heat in 1998.

A new report by the United Seniors Assn. predicts that more than half a million elderly Californians could need hospitalization for heat-related ailments this summer. Some communities have laid plans for cooling shelters, wading pools and other measures to provide relief. But will all who need help get it? Or get it in time?

Out in the desert, paramedics expect a crush of 911 calls when the power goes out and the ill, frail and frightened seek help. Leary and others at Eisenhower Medical Center will be waiting, armed with ice packs, cooled IVs and ventilators. "I am very, very worried," the doctor said. "I think we'll see a great toll in human suffering, even mortality."

California's tomato processors are no less anxious. They wash, cook, peel, chop, mash and can about 1 million tons of tomatoes a week from July to October--enough to account for half the world's supply. For them, a string of unexpected power losses could mean economic ruin in a matter of days.

The reason lies in the peculiar nature of food processing--a sterile system instantly contaminated if the power fails and the plant's precise temperature is disturbed. Once a batch of tomatoes is tainted, it must be thrown out--all 50,000 pounds. The plant must then be sanitized, a painstaking process that takes about 36 hours.

"If you get hit by blackouts every third day for, say, two weeks, you're starting, stopping, cleaning, restarting--it's a nightmare," said Jeff Boese, president of the California League of Food Processors. "You could lose three batches and be out $40 million before you knew what hit you."

Meanwhile, farmers with still more truckloads of tomatoes line up outside the plant, waiting to be paid for their crop: "If we can't process them, the farmers have spent an entire season growing them for nothing," Boese said.

In Sonoma County, the object in peril is the chicken. Egg producers equip their laying houses with fans and swamp coolers to keep the hens comfortable. Power is also needed to run giant refrigerators filled with eggs. "In a blackout, those hens can overheat in no time," said Rich Matteis of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Assn. "In 20 or 30 minutes, you could have 100,000 birds die."

Many large producers have backup generators, but they are not designed for ongoing, intensive use. Will they hold up? Small-scale egg producers often have no backup power at all.

Hundreds of other California businesses could suffer if summer shapes up as bad as some predict. The Valero Refining Co. of California, northeast of San Francisco, produces 115,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Because restarting a refinery is a complicated task, two or three blackouts close together could prompt officials to shutter it until electricity supplies stabilize--costing California about 10% of its gasoline supply.

At a Berkeley medical laboratory, doctors say power losses to their freezers could destroy bone marrow needed to give young leukemia patients lifesaving transplants. The state's 400 dialysis centers, where patients without kidney function go to have their blood cleansed every other day, are in the same fix. Few have backup generators, so when an outage hits, technicians must crank the machines by hand.

Most Californians, of course, face far more ordinary consequences. The scoreboards will fizzle at summer softball games, joggers on treadmills will be stopped in their tracks, electric organs will go silent, leaving choirs to sing without accompaniment.

Parents will be asked to retrieve children from day-care centers when the lights and cooling systems conk out. Anniversary lunches may be ruined when restaurants cannot grill salmon or blend margaritas.

Most people will tolerate occasional disturbances, psychologists say, doing their part in a time of crisis. But what if such irritations become an everyday fact of life? Hundreds of "essential" energy users--including prisons, fire departments and airports--are protected from blackouts, and hundreds more have applied for exemptions. That means the pool of people bearing the blackout burden is shrinking, so more frequent outages are likely.

Blackout predictions vary widely, but at least one forecaster, a consultant for California water districts, anticipates an outage almost every afternoon of every workday this summer if temperatures are unusually warm.

Californians are accustomed to trash compactors, giant-screen TVs and having the Internet at their fingertips. How much deprivation will they tolerate? "So far, the version of blackouts we've experienced hasn't looked too scary to people--it happens on a workday, in the afternoon, and you basically have to come home and reset your VCR," said Dan Kammen, a professor of energy and society at UC Berkeley.

But if outages become daily events, and start to invade the evening hours, the public mood could change abruptly. "When there's a disaster or crisis or trauma, people tend to act heroically and work together," said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist and trauma specialist. "But the civilized behavior only lasts a short period. Then people start acting in unpredictable ways."

That tendency may be exacerbated, Butterworth said, by the nature of the energy crisis--not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. "People start to look for a scapegoat," he said. "People will look for a target, and there's a tendency to strike out at whoever is closest to you."

One place that tendency may surface, Butterworth said, is on traffic-clogged roads. Blackouts already have led to scores of accidents. Add summer heat to the mix, and repeat the pattern day after day at rush hour, and motorists' patience could wear thin, law enforcement officials say.

"We're bracing for . . . possible acts of violence and road rage," said Sacramento County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Saunders. Lon House is the water consultant who predicts California could see blackouts almost every summer weekday. Among the worries for the 440 water agencies he represents: losing the ability to pump water during wildfire season.

"I'm telling them to be ready for a major earthquake every day this summer--meaning all your power is out throughout your district for multiple hours," House said. House insists he isn't an alarmist. But on top of the fire fears, he warns that blackouts of more than a few hours would allow air into water pipes, contaminating supplies. If that happens, Californians would be urged to boil their water until the system can be disinfected from one end of the pipe to the other.

Though rolling blackouts are risky, they remain essentially a controlled phenomenon, occurring when and where the grid managers and utilities decide. Far more frightening--and devastating -- are unexpected, cascading outages that could shut down the entire Western power grid.

It happened in August 1996, leaving 4 million people without power during a triple-digit heat wave. The problem began when power lines in Oregon sagged into trees and shut themselves off. That triggered a chain reaction of automatic switch-offs and oscillating surges of energy that ultimately shut down all four of the main power arteries between California and the Pacific Northwest.

That robbed the system of thousands of megawatts--enough to power the city of Seattle four times over--and scattered outages across California and six other Western states. Thousands of customers were without power for more than a day. Though such an episode is rare, California grid managers say it is more likely today because the system is taxed by the ever-increasing load of electricity it bears.

"The system is very dynamic, and when it's heavily loaded and highly stressed, like it is now, the smallest little thing could cause big trouble," said Kevin Bakker, who oversees California's connection to the greater Western power grid.

If a massive, uncontrolled outage should hit, the ramifications could be dizzying, said Mike Guerin, chief of law enforcement for the state Office of Emergency Services. Police departments would probably go to tactical alert, guarding against looting by criminals who might take advantage of disabled alarm systems and darkened street lights.

In hot areas, cities might convert municipal buses--parked with air conditioners running--into cooling shelters, Guerin said. The state would provide emergency generators to nursing homes and others in need, while the California National Guard might be called into action.

"With this kind of blackout scenario, you're not worried about the bologna going bad in the refrigerator," Guerin said. "We're talking about doctors doing surgeries on backup generators for three days. We're talking about a lot of things we don't like to think about." --- Times staff writers Nancy Vogel and Alexander Gronke and researcher Patti Williams contributed to this story.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

-- Swissrose (, June 20, 2001


This is a perfect description of the "medium case" Y2K Bug scenario so feared back in 1999. And with the "Y2K Bug Energy Crisis Flood," this danger is NOT past, despite being over 500 days past Rollover. So, stay Prepared! And if you didn't prepare, then prepare NOW, before it's too late!

On the Weather Channel on T.V., I've recently seen public service ads, here in Southern California, that perfectly depict ads that should have been airing from late 1997 on: Get and keep a stockpile of nonperishable and canned food, bottled water, bleach, first aid supplies, flashlights and DC lighting, plenty of batteries, and (if you can afford it) a backup electrical power source. Deja Vu --- Big Time!

-- Robert Riggs (, June 20, 2001.

It sure does sound like y2k all over again, doesn't it?

-- Uncle Fred (, June 20, 2001.

This is truly a scary scenario.

-- RogerT (, June 20, 2001.

The correct hyperlink for this article is: The link given for the "printer friendly" version does not work. Yes, it IS current, not old; from the period when things were looking worse than they do now. There's no exaggeration from earlier more dire projections.

-- Robert Riggs (, June 20, 2001.

Why not look on the bright side? There was a blackout warning early this week. Temperatures were at 100 in many parts of the state, but no blackouts developed. I think we'll all be okay. Have faith.

-- Polly-Anna (, June 20, 2001.

Polly-anna, I think I'll be OK, personally, in terms of my health, I mean. I don't anticipate any major bone-crushing accidents in my life, for instance. Nonetheless, I do strength training because I know that bones that get used are tougher to break, and muscles that have been used are quicker to heal. That it also makes me feel better immediately is a nice bennie. I don't live in fear of grave personal danger. I just have the sense to be readier for it than I might otherwise be. Likewise for Y2K (and other) preps. What is sane about "having faith" that I won't ever get hurt so why bother being strong, or well supplied?

-- L. Hunter Cassells (, June 21, 2001.

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