SACRAMENTO — If California uses the same amount of electricity this summer as it did last summer, residents face 34 days of rotating blackouts, according to the state's power grid operators.
In the first official arithmetic on the summer blackout threat, California Independent System Operator officials said Thursday that blackouts will most likely be needed when consumption tops 40,000 megawatts, as it did on 34 days last summer. That amount was exceeded on 11 days in the summer of 1999, according to Cal-ISO, and 16 days in 1998.
The potential blackouts in the hot months ahead, when power demand increases with the heat, could darken 5 million homes at once, said Jim McIntosh, chief of grid operations for Cal-ISO, which manages the electricity transmission system serving 75% of the state.
With summer looming and no major new power plants expected to begin running until July, workers at Cal-ISO in Folsom accept more blackouts as practically inevitable. Thursday they briefed officials of Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric on blackout procedures.
"It's very clear that this is going to be a very difficult summer," said Edison spokesman Steve Conroy. "Conservation is a must."
Drought in the Pacific Northwest has killed officials' hopes that imports of hydroelectric power will boost the state's energy supplies.
"There is never in the history of this country the confluence of incentives for conservation that we will have this summer," said S. David Freeman, energy advisor to Gov. Gray Davis and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Customers of DWP and publicly owned utilities in Glendale, Burbank and the Imperial Valley are exempt from blackouts ordered by Cal-ISO, although Freeman said that next week he will propose a program to reward Los Angeles residents for cutting energy consumption.
"Every kilowatt-hour saved in Los Angeles is a kilowatt-hour that can help keep the lights on in the rest of the state," he said.
California's demand for power is expected to be 5% higher this summer than last, according to a new report by the Western Systems Coordinating Council, a Utah-based agency that oversees the reliability of the electrical grid connecting the West.
That projection does not take into account conservation, but it does note that California will enter the summer without the so-called "interruptibles" program that helped it avoid blackouts on many days last summer. Under that program, businesses pay lower rates in return for agreeing to shut down when asked by Cal-ISO.
State regulators this winter freed businesses to abandon the program, and Edison director of contracts Ron Nunnally said he expects that most will.
California's power supply woes stem largely from a 10-year hiatus in power plant construction and a deregulation plan that has gone colossally wrong. Rather than bring electricity prices down, as intended, the state's 1996 deregulation triggered exorbitant prices for wholesale electricity and financially squeezed Edison and PG&E.
Cal-ISO triggered blackouts on Jan. 17, Jan. 18, March 19 and March 20.
In other developments Thursday:
* Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante proposed that the Legislature enact a new law that would make it a felony for energy companies to charge unreasonable rates.
Prosecutors could use findings from any regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, of unreasonable rates to file charges against a generator, possibly punishable by fines, restitution or jail time.
"They started a fire, and now they're selling us the water and overcharging us by 10 times what it's worth," Bustamante said.
Some generators have repeatedly stated that, to solve California's energy problems, the state needs to increase its supplies.
* The Senate passed a bill, 21 to 14, that provides the Public Utilities Commission with the authority to inspect and check generators' maintenance schedules. Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said her measure, SB 39X, would address fears that some generators might have shut down plants for maintenance to limit power supplies and keep prices high. By checking the generators' maintenance schedules, PUC investigators could ensure that both planned and unplanned outages by generators are appropriate.
Republican senators who opposed the bill said government intervention would dissuade companies from building new power plants. Several lawmakers asked Speier to exempt alternative energy producers from her measure.
* San Diego Gas & Electric could have saved its customers $98 million, primarily last summer, when electricity prices skyrocketed, if it had bought forward contracts rather than relying on the daily spot market, according to the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, a branch of the California PUC. The agency recommended Thursday that the utility not be allowed to pass on to customers the $98 million in costs run up between July 1, 1999, and Aug. 31, 2000.