California Power perils: Everyone eyeing exemptions : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Power perils: Everyone eyeing exemptions

Filed: 06/21/2001

By CHIP POWER Californian staff writer e-mail:

More than 200 Kern County businesses have applied for an exemption from rolling blackouts this summer, filing petitions that say disruptions could cause jeopardy or "imminent danger" to the public.

Many of them warn of health consequences from blackouts in Bakersfield, which roasts in triple-digit temperatures much of the summer.

How many will get their wishes granted is in doubt, though.

Too many businesses have their hands up.

From food stores to veterinarian hospitals to refineries, the Kern companies are among more than 9,000 applications that the state Public Utilities Commission has received via a Web site.

"We are going to be responsible for keeping people going this year when the temperature is over 100 degrees," said Scott Hair, president of Green Frog Market, which operates two small food stores in east Bakersfield and which asked for an exemption.

"If people are going to have to go out and get water, batteries, candles and other things, it would put a tremendous strain on them if they couldn't buy them" at the local store, Hair said.

The state PUC is expected to decide Aug. 2 which businesses statewide may be added to an "essential customer" list, said PUC spokeswoman Kyle DeVine. An extended deadline for applying passed June 15.

The state agreed to expand a list of "essential" customers who would be exempt from expected rolling blackouts that could be caused by electricity shortages.

The number of businesses that have applied has far exceeded the number that likely will be approved, said DeVine. "We only have 10 percent of the entire (electricity) load that we can exempt."

Customers who merely claim economic harm or inconvenience to a business are not being considered. Applications were received from business customers only.

In addition to the 9,000-plus requests that came in online, the agency has been flooded "with more faxes than anyone has had time to count," DeVine said.

The nonblackout sweepstakes was open to nonresidential customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Co.

Already, certain customers -- including hospitals, fire and police stations, as well as air traffic control facilities -- are classified as essential-use customers and are normally exempt from rotating outages, according to the PUC. Customers on the same circuits as those facilities benefit, too, avoiding blackouts by virtue of luck.

The outages are a vital tool in protecting the state from widespread electrical system collapse when demand for electricity exceeds supply, PUC says.

Businesses that assert that the pubic will be jeopardized may have their claims scrutinized by the Office of Emergency Service and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Some 168 businesses in Bakersfield filed for an exemption, according to the agency's Web site.

The PUC's decision to allow more exemptions, though limited, came after it faced a swirl of requests from skilled nursing facilities, water districts, sewer districts, laboratories, dentists, outpatient surgery centers, refineries and stadiums, among others.

Gov. Gray Davis has requested that the PUC exempt refineries from blackouts, declaring that their disruption would cause grave consequences if gasoline supplies run short. The PUC has not acted on that request.

However, Commissioner Carl Wood of the PUC has urged fellow commissioners to exempt the state's oil refineries from rolling blackouts.

In a statement, Wood said refineries and other facilities involved in gasoline production should be exempt as early as the PUC's June 28 meeting.

Refinery representatives say a blackout could shut down production for up to three weeks.

Others worry about other disruptions.

The Bakersfield Dialysis Center, which can treat more than 100 patients a day, applied for an exemption because its backup power generator could run most of the equipment at the clinic but not the air conditioner, said Steve Reese, chief technologist.

"Some of these are very sick people we are talking about," said Reese, adding air conditioning was essential during treatment of kidney disorders.

Likewise, Heminee Salinas, bookkeeper for Greater Bakersfield Ministries, said the church worries about a lack of cool air. The church leases space to another group for use as a day care for dozens of children, including toddlers, she said.

"If it's going to be over 100 and some degrees, you would have to feel sorry for those children," she said. "It surely wouldn't be healthy for them."

Hair, the store operator, also serves as a board member of the California Independent Grocers Association. He said he also applied for an exemption just to even the scales in case a competitor did.

But he said he was frustrated that the prospects of more blackouts was even being talked about.

"The way I look at it, a lot of this never should have happened in the first place," said Hair, who contended that a state reluctance early on to raise electric rates for consumers was partially responsible for forcing PG&E into bankruptcy court.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 21, 2001


Can someone help me understand the logistics of actually implementing all these exemptions -- not the load vs capacity issue, but how the breakers get turned on and off? I guess I don;t understand how this can be made to work without enormous effort.

Currently the California grid is broken up into, what, 51 geographically scattered blocks, with number "51" being the famous "your house gets power even during rolling blackouts, because you share a circuit with the hospital or fire station across the street." Do I have this right?

But how will the utilities manage to keep power on to all these newly exempt businesses? Will it involve reallocating parts of blocks a priori, so that a particular segment of "Block 2," say, now becomes a new addition to "Block 51" because a business there is now on the Exempt list? Or am I missing something?

-- Andre Weltman (, June 21, 2001.

Ah, in a different news post here I see this:

"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. "

So, Block 50 (not 51) is the special one. And I guess this implies that yes, to add a business (vet clinic, refinery, whatever) to the exempt list, the utilities may indeed reassign bits and pieces of one block to a new block designations.

I would imagine it's got to be a major hassle keeping track of all that across a big state. Wow. Errors will occur, of course: how long 'till the first lawsuit when a supposedly exempt business looses power because the block assignment process broke down under the flurry of changes???

-- Andre Weltman (, June 21, 2001.


This may partially answer your question.

Q: How do authorities decide when to begin rolling blackouts?

A: The decision is made in Folsom at the offices of the Independent System Operator, where engineers keep constant watch over California's power consumption. When energy reserves dip below 1.5 percent, the ISO can order utilities to start cutting juice. The ISO tells the utilities exactly how much power to cut.

Deciding whom to cut and for how long is left to the utilities. PG&E has divided its vast service area - which includes 4.5 million customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border - into 14 blocks. Each block represents about 550 megawatts of electricity; a megawatt is enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.

Power is cut to each block sequentially for 60 to 90 minutes. If PG&E is told to cut more than 550 megawatts, it will shut down two or more blocks at a time. PG&E also can black out smaller portions within each block if the ISO's requirements are for less than 550 megawatts.

Cutting the power is a straightforward matter of shutting off circuits in a power substation by computer or sending a crew to flip the switches by hand. file=/chronicle/archive/2001/01/18/MNblackouts.DTL

-- Martin Thompson (, June 21, 2001.

Thanks, Martin.

<< by computer...or sending a crew to flip the switches by hand >>

But that's the's got to be a real *logistical* nightmare to get all the correct instructions issued so that only the appropriate addresses lose power. I can't imagine this process is quite so "easy" in the sense of field workers (under time pressure) checking their lists to avoid switching mistakes...lists which, as new exemptions are granted, will change over time.

Of course, one might argue that having a computer do the switching is not necessarily going to be an improvement...

-- Andre Weltman (, June 22, 2001.

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