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Christmas Gives Power Officials the Shivers

Energy: Those holiday light displays, they say, could overburden California's already strained electricity grid.


Could this be the year the grid stole Christmas?

The latest threat to the stability of California's electricity grid looms the day after Thanksgiving, when homes and businesses start plugging in their holiday lights.

The merry twinkle adds an estimated 1,000 megawatts of consumption--equal to the production of a nuclear power plant--and that has state power officials worried as they scramble each day to round up enough electrons to meet the electricity needs of about 75% of Californians.

Officials are stopping short, for now, of encouraging consumers to keep their holiday revelry to a dull glow. But the growing use of icicle lights, in particular, is one of several factors that have them monitoring the situation closely.

"We don't want to be a Grinch, and we know that Christmas lights are near and dear to Californians' hearts, but it does make a big difference," said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator, which operates the electricity grid and schedules power for most of the state.

That task has been surprisingly difficult this week for the Folsom, Calif.-based nonprofit. It has had to declare three moderate power emergencies and call for electricity interruptions to large business customers--a situation even the California Public Utilities Commission thought would happen only in the air-conditioner-frenzied days of summer, when the state's electricity crisis had Cal-ISO importing all the electricity it could find to avoid rolling blackouts of all users.

This week's cold weather around the West, combined with power-plant outages totaling 12,000 megawatts, pushed the state within 5% of running out of electricity Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

During power emergencies, urgent calls for conservation are put out by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric to avoid rotating outages when reserves fall below 1.5%.

If that happens in December, then holiday light displays would be an obvious target. In other words, to avoid blackouts, Californians may be asked to endure red-and green-outs.

Jim Detmers, Cal-ISO managing director of operations, said several thousand megawatts of power generation will remain unavailable during the winter as operators make planned repairs to get ready for a grueling summer of electricity shortages. Cal-ISO is examining peak usage and, if conservation is required, may merely ask Californians to turn on their holiday displays a bit later at night, he said.

"We're running the numbers now," Detmers said. "Should any emergencies occur, such as units breaking down, we have to be prepared."

Electricity consumption in California is on the rise year-round, but supply has failed to keep pace, as no new major power plants have been built in the state in more than a decade. Last December, average peak consumption was 31,183 megawatts in the Cal-ISO grid, up 2.8% from 30,330 megawatts in December 1998. (A megawatt is roughly enough power to supply 1,000 homes.)

Even if Cal-ISO's nightmare before Christmas comes true, residents of Los Angeles need not curse the darkness.

The city's Department of Water and Power is not yet participating in the state's thus-far-troubled experiment in deregulation, is not part of the stressed-out Cal-ISO grid, and has more than enough electricity to serve its customers' needs.

Some of the municipal utility's enviable electricity excess will be on display starting Nov. 25 at the DWP's Griffith Park Festival of Lights, co-sponsored with the Department of Recreation and Parks. The mile-long extravaganza will run until Dec. 26.

"We don't encourage waste, but lighting and Christmas kind of go together," DWP General Manager S. David Freeman said. Freeman, a member of Cal-ISO's board of governors, said he doubts that the state's power problems will extend to holiday lights. Still, he quipped: "If you want to have a very merry Christmas, celebrate it in L.A."

So far, California's well-publicized electricity troubles have not dimmed enthusiasm for big, flashy holiday displays, even among large industrial customers that have been asked repeatedly this year to cut back their power consumption.

In fact, Dekra-Lite Industries Inc. of Santa Ana, a decorating company that specializes in Christmas displays at malls, hotels and office buildings, has seen a 20% increase in demand for lighting this year, President Jeff Lopez said.

Last year, the company's 100 employees, working mainly at night, strung an estimated 60 miles of lights and decorated 10,000 Christmas trees for commercial customers and municipalities.

"It seems like every mall and city wants to light the outside of every building," Lopez said. "That's OK with us. Our motto is, 'The light before Christmas.' "

For consumers, holiday light packaging gives few clues as to how much electricity the decorations use.

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