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Big Users Cut Power So Region Keeps Its Cool

Electricity regulators nearly had to impose blackouts, but voluntary cuts kept current flowing.

August 03, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE and LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As Southern California sagged under a third straight day of oppressive summer heat, major energy users in Orange County--from big businesses to colleges to amusement parks--juggled operations Wednesday to avoid rolling blackouts.

Power regulators called for voluntary conservation measures and people responded. By evening, Southern California Edison stopped short of doing what it had not done in decades but feared it might have to do: shut off power to neighborhoods.

Temperatures were expected to dip into the more comfortable range today but could shoot up again next week, forecasters said.

On Wednesday, demands for electricity were slightly less than the day before, when the all-critical reserve level dipped to 3%. It dipped to 5% at about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the peak usage time, said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, which manages the flow of power among California utilities.

That didn't mean, though, that power was flowing freely. Golden West College officials agreed to an Edison request to close down the Huntington Beach campus, and Newport Beach chip maker Conexant Systems Inc. dimmed its lights and cut back on air conditioning.

"It does get a little warm in here," said Conexant spokeswoman Lisa Briggs. "We are doing our best to be good corporate citizens."

Customers at Knott's Berry Farm found the heat reduced their entertainment options. Park officials shut down four rides for just over three hours in the middle of the afternoon Wednesday, the second straight day such measures were taken. The theme park also turned down air conditioning and lights in employee areas.

Although the popular Big Foot Rapids was among the closed rides, Knott's spokesman Bob Ochsner said that most park guests took the news in stride. HammerHead Gran Slammer and Mystery Lodge, a multimedia show with special effects, were also closed.

"Out of 65 rides, there are only four down," Ochsner said. "The public generally understands."

At Disneyland, power use was curtailed but mostly in places invisible to park-goers, said park spokesman Ray Gomez. Lights and air conditioning in employee areas were shut down, but the rides kept going.

"It doesn't impact us out in the park or affect our guests in any way in terms of park experience or safety," Gomez said, "We will not be shutting down any rides at all."

The power crunch came as California baked under intense sun that sent inland temperatures soaring into the 100s. The heat was accompanied by relatively high humidity from a flow of moist subtropical air drawn into the region by a stationary high-pressure system that's "been anchored over the western third of the nation for several days," said Stacey Johnstone, a forecaster for WeatherData Inc., which provides weather information for The Times.

Cooler Weather Likely On the Way

Johnstone said the heat and humidity would likely lessen today as a weather system moves into the Pacific Northwest, bumping the high pressure system to the east and allowing Orange County surface winds to shift onshore, bringing cooler ocean air.

Another high-pressure system could develop next week, though, sending temperatures back up again, she said.

The power crunch affected operations across the Southland.

Under special rate programs, some 1,000 Edison customers pay reduced prices for power in return for an agreement to cut usage during Stage 2 emergencies, designated when reserves in the state power grid drop below 5%. While compliance is voluntary, those who do not cut consumption are billed at a much higher rate--as much as $9 per kilowatt hour, compared to the agreed-upon rate of 7 cents per kilowatt hour, said Southern California Edison spokesman Tom Boyd.

Orange County joined in 1992, and has saved about $900,000 over the past five years, officials said. Before this summer, the county had been asked to cut power only once, in 1998.

So far this year, it has been asked to close down four times, including Monday and Tuesday. But county chief executive Michael Schumacher declined to shut operations when asked Wednesday, deciding to pay as much as $10,000 an hour rather than disrupt work again at a cost of more than $100,000.

And at least two county Supervisors said they would vote against the deal when it comes up for renewal in the fall.

"I would never have agreed to it," said Board Chairman Chuck Smith. "We can't shut down the business of government. It's obvious we have to do something about this."

Supervisor Todd Spitzer called the voluntary power shutdown "an incredible waste of valuable resources."

About 1,000 Orange County government employees were sent home Monday and Tuesday. The shutdowns came at busy time for county records processing.

Treasurer-Tax Collector John Moorlach, Assessor Webster Guillory and Clerk-Recorder Gary Granville asked employees to start work at 6 a.m. Wednesday to make up for lost time.

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