Blackouts hit county; Plant fire, heat strain system statewide

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

From San Diego to Eureka, more than 1 million Californians endured power outages yesterday as warm weather created an unexpected surge in demand that stressed the state’s power grid and provided a scary glimpse of what might happen this summer.

Grid operators said a morning fire that shut down a Nevada power plant triggered the rolling blackouts, which hit San Diego for the first time.

But supplies already were tight because nearly one-third of the state’s generating capacity was reported off-line for maintenance. Reduced imports from the Pacific Northwest and the idling of alternative-energy generators that have gone unpaid for months added to the problem.

Critics of deregulation said the new round of blackouts is evidence that the state’s electricity market continues to be manipulated by power companies and called for stronger action by state and federal officials.

Power cutoffs were ordered between noon and 4:30 p.m. and again between 6 and 8 p.m. by the California Independent System Operator, which manages most of the state’s grid.

The move prevented an uncontrolled outage that could have crashed power supplies that serve the western United States, said ISO spokesman Patrick Dorinson. He warned that outages were possible today, too.

Part of the power shortfall was blamed on the so-called qualifying facilities — wind, geothermal and other renewable energy providers that typically provide up to one-third of California’s electricity — which are no longer operating because they are not being paid.

Legislation that would have paid the small generators stalled two weeks ago, bogged down by late provisions added by Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, and other details. Democrats accused Battin of trying to aid campaign contributors, but Battin denies the charge.

Another obstacle to the bill was that Democratic leaders wanted payment of the small generators to be linked to approval of the state purchase of the utility transmission systems, which is still being negotiated.

The bill also called for payments to small generators that could have triggered a rate increase for utility customers.

However, a new plan to pay the generators may be ready for action later this week.

“They are the only folks who have been generating power for the last several months and not getting paid for it,” said Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Boulder Creek. “They have an absolutely legitimate claim.”

About 3,000 megawatts of small generator power was off-line yesterday. Maintenance was the main reason, but unpaid generators who can no longer operate accounted for 800 to 1,200 megawatts, said Jan Smutny-Jones of the Independent Energy Producers.

“This was sort of a prelude to what could happen next summer unless the independent generators are paid,” Smutny-Jones said.

Grid managers said higher-than-expected temperatures around the state boosted yesterday’s power usage to summer-like demand levels.

“Temperatures were very, very warm for March and that’s why the load was higher than projected,” said Jim Detmers, the ISO’s vice president of operations, adding that record highs were reported in Northern California.

In January, Northern California residents underwent rolling blackouts when demand exceeded power supplies. But this was the first time San Diego County residents had their lights shut off.

About 210,000 SDG&E customers experienced rolling blackouts that lasted from 60 to 90 minutes. Nearly every community in the region was hit.

Outages tripped burglar alarms and darkened traffic signals, sending police units around the county scrambling to direct traffic. It caused at least one serious traffic accident. At least four people were briefly trapped in office elevators.

Utility managers selected blocks of customers to shut down from a plan pre-approved by regulators. Blocks were picked based on the number of megawatts needed to be shed.

“They are looking for a slice of the pie that fits the slice of the pie that the ISO is hungry for,” said Laura Farmer, an SDG&E spokeswoman.

About 40 percent of SDG&E‘s substations are fitted with controls that can automatically shut down electricity in a rolling blackout. Customers served by older equipment aren’t considered.

Also exempt from rolling blackouts are fire, police, prison facilities; government agencies essential to national defense; hospitals with 100 beds or more; telephone utilities; commercial air and sea operation posts; water and sewage treatment facilities; and radio and television broadcasting stations used for broadcasting emergency messages.

Consumer advocates said the blackouts underscore California’s shaky energy situation.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, said he was troubled because there was no major triggering event for yesterday’s blackouts.

“It was a combination of small factors that exposed how precariously perched we are on this energy tightrope,” Shames said.

Ironically, the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights in Santa Monica yesterday released a report predicting blackouts would happen soon.

“We predicted the blackouts because the governor’s plan to solve the crisis is dead on arrival at the legislature,” said Harvey Rosenfield, foundation president. “And the sense of urgency was gone — so the only thing the industry could do to get the Legislature’s attention is blackouts.

“Our conclusion is that this entire crisis has been manufactured for the financial gain of the utilities, the power companies and Wall Street.”

Rosenfield now predicts that heightened awareness of the crisis will produce serious consideration of plant takeovers by the state.

“We can’t have a handful of companies bring this state to its knees. Nobody can afford this,” he said.

Nearly two months ago, the state was forced to begin buying power for utility customers after Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison were nearly bankrupted. The state also is buying power for the customers of San Diego Gas and Electric.

The state is buying about a third of the power on the expensive spot market, mainly from out-of-state generators. State officials are attempting to negotiate long-term contracts that will be cheap enough to avoid a rate increase.

A $10 billion bond is intended to spread the cost for ratepayers over a dozen years. The Davis administration gave notice yesterday that it will begin spending an additional $500 million in 10 days to buy power, bringing the total to $4.2 billion.

The Senate budget chairman, Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, warned last week that more spending may not be approved until the Public Utilities Commission adopts a new rate structure that begins repaying the state general fund.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, renewed his call yesterday for a federal cap on power rates.

Filner noted that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has said allegations of price-gouging and manipulation in the California market are a myth and that the administration is opposed to capping prices, saying that would cause blackouts.

“Well, Mr. Secretary the wholesale market is operating unchecked and here we are in the dark today in California,” Filner said. “And it will only get worse — in California and the rest of the nation.

“I call on Secretary Abraham and the Bush administration to reconsider their position. The federal government has the authority and the responsibility to set cost-based rates.”


A Stage 3 alert was declared yesterday after reserves dropped to less than 1.5 percent. Grid managers ordered rotating blackouts for the first time since mid-January.

By the numbers

1.2 million Number of customers affected statewide.

210,000 Number of customers affected in the SDG&E service area.

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