Utilities to give 2-day warnings of blackouts

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PG&E to post maps on Web showing location of outages

The San Francisco Chronicle

Energy customers will know as early as two days in advance that they could lose power this summer under a plan unveiled yesterday by the California Independent System Operator that pulls the plug on surprise blackouts.

But with that knowledge comes increased responsibility to help prevent the outages, said Dallas Jones, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, which Gov. Gray Davis charged with crafting the plan.

“This plan will provide you with additional notice, but you have to keep in mind that if it doesn’t come about, it’s because you’ve helped,” Jones said. “It’s not that our projections were incorrect, it’s that you were successful. You should take pride in being able to do that.”

Davis issued an executive order June 1 requiring the public, public safety agencies and the media to be notified of potential blackouts. Yesterday was the deadline for the emergency office to outline how this would be accomplished.

The resulting 18-page document calls for the ISO to issue 48-, 24- and one-hour warnings to the emergency office, utilities and the media. Predictions would take into consideration weather conditions throughout the state and the electricity available.

The utilities and the media would alert the public.

Already, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers, along with those of independent operators such as Palo Alto Utilities, can find out if they’ll be left in the dark by looking up their block number on the companies’ Web sites.

But often, PG&E had only minutes’ notice to work with, said spokesman John Nelson. And up to now, customers needed to know their block number — usually gleaned from their utility bill.

But now PG&E will post maps on its site so customers can get the bigger picture. If an outage is announced, it would usually last between an hour and an hour and a half.

“The real benefit of the map is not so much where your outage block is, but it’s so you can look at a map of your community and see if, for example, the post office across town is out of power,” Nelson said.

That’s just the kind of information that utilities have used in the past to justify not warning customers of outages. They have said they feared criminals would take advantage of banks, small businesses or homes with deactivated alarms.

But yesterday, Jones said that is no longer a concern.

“We convened panels of law enforcement officers to see if they had major objections. They did not,” he said.

The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group applauded the notification program.

“This is version 2.0; we’re looking forward to building 3.0 that would include even more tools for communicating with Californians,” said spokeswoman Michelle Montague-Bruno. “It’s a great start.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the plan.

Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the government should be turning its attention to preventing blackouts rather than warnings about them.

“If we had a stronger political leadership, we wouldn’t even be facing blackouts this summer,” he said.

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