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[cdn-nucl-l] Blackouts Hit California
It finally came to California, of all places.
I recall well the unannounced rotating blackouts when I was doing research
in the basement of the university in Israel, for my MSc degree, in the
mid-1960s. It was a real pain to suddenly lose all of my data when the
lights went out. I recall asking the supplier of the instrumentation (in
California) how I could avoid losing my data, and he said he did not
understand the problem I was having.
Where is Energy Probe with all the answers?
Blackouts Hit California
Updated: Wed, Jan 17 07:34 PM EST
By JENNIFER COLEMAN, Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Pushed over the brink by its botched experiment
with deregulation, California cut off power to hundreds of thousands of
people Wednesday in the first rolling blackouts imposed during its
Lights blinked off about noon in parts of San Francisco, Sacramento and San
Jose, as well as other sections of Silicon Valley.
No major problems were reported, but the outages knocked out TV stations,
ATMs and traffic lights across the San Francisco Bay area, backing up
traffic and forcing college professors to hold class in dimly lit
classrooms. Police officers directed traffic and store owners turned to
The rotating, hourlong blackouts across the northern half of the state were
halted in the afternoon but were to resume statewide by evening.
Los Angeles was considered safe because it has its own utility, but as many
as 2 million households were expected to be affected before the blackouts
end at midnight.
Utilities avoided cutting power to essential services such as hospitals and
airports. Citing security reasons, they declined to identify exactly which
areas lost power.
"If you knew power was out in certain areas, you'd also know that alarms
were out and security cameras were out," said Ron Low, spokesman for Pacific
Gas & Electric Co., whose territory stretches from Oregon to Bakersfield,
500 miles away.
Those affected in the first wave of blackouts included 200,000 to 500,000
PG&E customers in the San Francisco area, and thousands more in Sacramento,
Modesto and Turlock.
Despite several close calls in recent weeks, it was the first time the
Independent System Operator, the keeper of the grid, failed to scrounge up
enough electricity from around the country to avoid scattered outages.
Jim Detmers, ISO managing director of operations, said several power plants
that were expected to return to full operation Wednesday after repairs did
He also said out-of-state power suppliers were not selling badly needed
electricity to California because the state's two largest utilities were on
the verge of bankruptcy.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson extended an emergency order requiring power
suppliers to sell electricity to California until midnight Tuesday.
"The order makes it clear we have the power to enforce the order should we
find that any suppliers haven't complied," said Matt Nerzig, a Richardson
spokesman. "We wouldn't be making it clear if we hadn't heard reports that
this might be happening."
The state also implemented its plan to cut power 5 percent by scaling back
use in state offices and shutting down huge pumps that send water from
Northern California to the south.
California has struggled for months with the effects of deregulating its
electricity market. Under the plan, private utilities had to sell their
power plants and buy electricity on the open market - an approach that was
supposed to lead to lower rates.
But PG&E and the state's other major utility, Southern California Edison
Co., have lost at least $10 billion because of soaring wholesale prices for
electricity and because rate caps imposed under deregulation have prevented
them from passing on those costs to customers.
State lawmakers are scrambling to find a fix. The Assembly approved a plan
Tuesday under which the state would buy electricity from wholesalers and
sell it to struggling utilities at about one-fifth the going market rate.
The measure now moves to the Senate.
The help cannot come too soon.
SoCal Edison, which serves 11 million people, said it cannot pay $596
million in bills due now and will run out of cash Feb. 2. PG&E, which serves
14 million people, had just $500 million in cash left as of Jan. 10 and
faces bills of $1 billion due next month.
Standard & Poor's has downgraded the credit ratings of SoCal Edison and PG&E
to junk-bond status.
Wholesale power prices have risen dramatically since June, in part of
because of a hot summer and a cold winter. In 1999, they averaged perhaps
3.5 cents a kilowatt. Now they are running about 30 cents, or far higher.
Demand has remained high, supplies are strapped because no new plants have
been built in the state in recent years and imports are tight because other
states are fighting over the power.
In addition, spiraling prices for natural gas are forcing power plants to
raise their prices. Most power plants are fired by natural gas.
After the blackouts began, Vic Parrish, chief executive for Energy
Northwest, a 13-utility public power consortium based in Richland, Wash.,
said the industry had failed.
"We as an agency and an industry are socially and morally obligated to make
sure people have safe power day and night," he said. "Right now, there are
handicapped people sitting alone in the dark in California, wondering if the
lights will ever come on again. If there's one person like that, we haven't
done our damn job."