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Officials Prepare for Blackouts

Electricity: County sees possible darkened summer afternoons ahead in the Government Center, the result of a money-saving deal with a utility.


Sirens blare a warning overhead: Turn off your computers. Don't get in the elevator. And then, in what has become a County Government Center routine for three days this week, most of the lights overhead go out, leaving employees to work by the sunlight through their windows.

After 12 years with few power interruptions, the county this summer is finally paying the price for a money-saving deal with Southern California Edison: consistent afternoon blackouts that darken halls in the Government Center, render computers useless and send some employees home early.

By agreeing to endure occasional blackouts during peak demand to save the utility some power, the county pays 20% less for energy, enough to save $4.3 million over the course of the program. Until now there had been only seven blackouts during the 12 years--some for as little as 30 seconds, and several at the Todd Road Jail, which has its own generator.

But with a statewide power shortage this week and a resultant three blackouts in as many days, county officials are preparing for summer afternoons in the dark at the County Government Center. And some officials are questioning how worthwhile the money-saving deal is for the county.

"We're saving about $370,000 a year. You have two blackouts and you wipe out people working for hours," Supervisor Frank Schillo said Wednesday. "You add all that up and I think we're losing money."

Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford sent a memo to department heads stating he has determined the maximum period the county can choose to interrupt power: the two hours between 3 and 5 p.m. The county pays a $34,000-an-hour penalty when it chooses not to interrupt its power supply, but is required to remain in the program through November, when it will have the opportunity to leave.

"It's bad enough to take the two hours a day. It's kind of splitting the difference," Hufford said. "We're a public services agency. We really need to be accessible to the public."

Johnny Johnston, director of the General Services Agency, said the county could save an additional $650,000 before the program officially ends in 2002, but that his agency will monitor the program for the next three months to determine whether it's worth continuing.

"If we have many more days like this, it's not only an economic issue, it's bad service," he said.

Power officials statewide have braced for even shorter electricity supplies in the future, blaming an increase in the number of power-sapping technologies, a lack of power plants and the complicated issues provoked by utility deregulation. That, combined with the heat, makes this summer a tough one for power providers, officials say.

Southern California Edison officials said they barely avoided what would have been their first-ever "Stage 3" power emergency Wednesday by calling on 15,000 organizations in the program, including Orange County's Civic Center. That would have meant ordering the state's big investor-owned utilities to institute mandatory rolling blackouts across their vast territories.

Lynda Ziegler, director of business and regulator planning for Edison, said residential blackouts could arise if too many entities such as the county pull out of the program.

"We really hope that wouldn't be the case," she said. "They play a critical roll in helping to avoid blackouts."

But Schillo blamed the utility's energy shortages on poor planning. He said he hoped the county could come up with a plan that would be more equitable during blackouts. Workers in the Probation Department called his office to complain some managers had been using the blackouts as a reason to depart early, Schillo said.

Some county workers have cut their workday during the blackouts, employees said. The West County Police Services Patrol shut down early. In the courthouse, security guards were searching bags by hand because one of the metal detectors was without power. And in offices throughout the center, in the dim light of the generator, there was an odd silence, without the usual buzz of air-conditioning and office noise.

But many employees have been working their schedules around the blackouts, performing computer work in the morning and leaving tasks such as opening mail and telephone calls until the afternoon.

Workers were checking the air quality to ensure air circulation was adequate, and have had to install battery packs in the lights that illuminate bathrooms to avoid pitch-black darkness, Johnston said.

There was no doubt this was a hardship.

"This is frustrating. We have deadlines we have to meet," said Susan Ignacio, a data processor for the Sheriff's Department. "You get no air-conditioning, and it's completely dark."

That was the common complaint, despite the relatively balmy temperatures outside.

"It's hot," said Nellie Neri. "By 5 o'clock, we're using our paper [forms] for fans."

Bob Tovias, manager in the tax collectors office, said his job has been made much more complicated, and has some of his customers a little irritable. But that is the minority, he insisted.

"Nobody's in a rush to pay taxes."



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