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Rolling Blackouts Push Energy Crisis From Threat to Reality

Electricity: System operators pull plug on customers from Bakersfield to Eureka. Davis declares an emergency, clearing way for state to purchase power.


Rolling blackouts dimmed sizable portions of Northern and Central California on Wednesday, shutting businesses and tangling traffic, as state energy operators sent home the message that months of warnings about looming electricity shortages had not been idle threats.

The blackouts immediately hit about half a million homes and businesses throughout the northern two-thirds of the state, from Bakersfield to Eureka, including chunks of the Silicon Valley, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Among those left suddenly powerless were some of the state's best-known corporations, including Apple Inc. and Hewlett-Packard, whose high-tech staffs were forced to fall back into the Dark Ages of window light and pen and paper.

From dawn to well past darkness, the day was as unpredictable as it was tumultuous. Not only was the power shut off, the teetering utilities also closed their wallets to creditors, and the governor ended the night by invoking his emergency powers.

Gov. Gray Davis signed an emergency proclamation Wednesday night, clearing the way for California to spend unknown quantities of Department of Water Resources' money to buy power. Davis said he acted after four out-of-state power plant owners said they would bring California's two largest utilities into bankruptcy after 12:01 p.m. today if the Legislature did not quickly enable the state to make power purchases.

The governor, looking angry and fatigued, refused to say how much money would be needed. "There are so many things in flux," Davis said. "It's impossible to give you a number now."

The blackouts were the most visible result of a months-long energy crisis that has pushed the state's two largest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, to the brink of bankruptcy. Edison, which defaulted on some bills Tuesday, faces another crucial deadline today when a $215-million electricity payment comes due.

The private agency that operates the state's electricity grid powered down at 11:50 a.m. after a frustrating morning spent trying to hustle electricity from suppliers in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. The immediate trigger for the blackouts was a malfunction that shut down a major electricity generator in Morro Bay. But the groundwork had been laid by months of escalating problems--nurtured by the state's ill-starred plunge into deregulation--that were exacerbated Wednesday by a cold snap in the Northwest. That drove up demand there, reducing the amount of energy that California could import.

"We called all the usual folks, all the unusual folks, we called everybody," said Ed Riley, director of grid operations for the agency, the California Independent System Operator. "They gave us what they could and said they were sorry they couldn't give us more."

After several close shaves in recent weeks, when the agency managed to scavenge power at the last minute and avoid blackouts, "we seem to be running out of magic," said Cal-ISO spokesman Patrick Dorinson.

More Blackouts Called Likely

More blackouts are likely today, perhaps as early as 7 a.m., as the grid faces "our most challenging day ever," Cal-ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle said. Advance electricity purchases for today fell 45% below demand. The outlook for Friday is even worse, setting the stage for two more days of drama similar to Wednesday's.

By 2 p.m. Wednesday, the state had been able to tap enough electricity from a supplier in British Columbia to halt the outages in the north. At that point, energy officials were predicting that by evening, about 2 million customers would face blackouts throughout the state, including many in Southern California Edison's territory.

At the cavernous, windowless control room of the Cal-ISO in Folsom, in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, a dozen men worked through the afternoon on a crescent-shaped bank of computers and phones, trying desperately to scrounge enough electricity to get the state through the day.

Outside, the sun was dropping. Blackouts at night, they knew, would be far more dangerous for drivers heading home from work.

Bob Sullivan, 44, wearing a yellow dress shirt rumpled by 11 hours of work, called suppliers, 30 an hour, inside and outside California. His canvassing finally kicked loose 1,300 megawatts from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Canadian supplier, allowing the state to get from 5 to 6 p.m. without blackouts.

After that, it was more of the same struggle through the evening.

Why did Canada's BC Hydro and the DWP come through? Perhaps because operators there realized they would not need as much electricity as they needed earlier in the day. But there could be another reason, Riley said: "This is the highest price we've paid for energy all day."

As it was, many power users throughout Southern California had been braced for outages. In Buena Park, Knott's Berry Farm shut down its biggest energy user, the Big Foot Rapids Ride.

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