Other suppliers reached credit limits and stopped selling to the state Department of Water Resources, which became the state's primary electricity buyer in mid-January after some generators refused to do business with the cash-strapped utilities. On Monday, state lawmakers warned that they may cut off further funding until they are presented a clear-cut plan for the state to be reimbursed by ratepayers.
Worsening the power situation, suppliers in the drought-stricken Northwest cut transmissions from their hydroelectric plants by 2,000 megawatts.
Further adding to the woes, the Mohave power plant in Nevada, a major supplier to California, went down for unscheduled maintenance. That resulted in another 1,400-megawatt reduction.
Monday's outages hopscotched across the state with seeming randomness--knocking power out on one side of the block but sparing another, darkening half a mall while leaving the other side lighted. But there was a method to the madness.
Utilities divide their millions of customers into "blocks" that areblacked out one by one. Also, customers on a circuit that provides power to essential services, such as fire departments and police stations, are exempt from blackouts, representing up to half of all utility customers.
On Monday the disruptions rotated statewide from block to block on roughly an hourly basis.
The strain on California's grid was apparent early in the day when Cal-ISO declared a Stage 2 emergency at 6 a.m., indicating that reserves were projected to fall below 5%.
A 10 a.m. transformer failure at the Nevada plant pushed the grid into a Stage 3 emergency, meaning the state was within 1.5% of running out of available power. Within two hours, the blackouts began.
Most Californians took the hassle in stride.
When the lights went out at Marshall Fundamental Magnet in Pasadena, Principal Susan Ballantyne had the staff escort students to their classes after the second lunch period ended.
"We said, 'Use your wristwatch.' " Ballantyne said. " 'When fifth period is over, release the students. Sixth period will begin as usual.' It did."
Because the clocks were off, Ballantyne had the dismissal bell rung by hand.
The blackouts rolled virtually to the ISO's own doorstep. An outage in south Folsom, near Sacramento, extinguished store lights, snarled midday traffic and stopped cash registers at the city's large outlet mall, less than a mile away.
Most merchants shut their doors, leaving shoppers simmering outside. Some posted apologetic signs. Others simply locked their doors.
For Melissa Koppel and her mother, Sarah, it was their second blackout of the day. They were shopping at a mall in nearby Citrus Heights, but were chased out by a noon blackout. They headed to Folsom, arriving just in time for the lights to go out there.
For some, the outages were more than an inconvenience.
At Delco Machine & Gear in Long Beach, a maker of precision parts for the aerospace industry, Monday's brief blackout shut off dozens of sophisticated metal cutting machines. The cost: at least $30,000 worth of damaged goods.
In Los Angeles, customers were spared any upset, thanks to the independently run Department of Water and Power. Still, general manager S. David Freeman used the occasion to scold state residents. Despite months of dire electricity problems and screaming headlines, Californians still do not seem to grasp the problem, Freeman said. "There is a shortage of electricity in this state," he said. "That is a fact. The general public doesn't seem to believe it, but it's true."
Customers of Edison and PG&E were shielded from soaring wholesale prices by a retail rate freeze. But the swelling electricity debt caused a financial crisis at the two utilities, which turned into a statewide supply crisis early in the year.
State lawmakers have been wrestling with various fixes, including the planned sale of $10 billion in bonds to buy electricity, the potential purchase of the utilities' power transmission systems, expensive conservation programs, and expedited power plant construction. Most of these potential solutions have yet to be enacted.
Throughout the crisis, Davis has been unremittingly optimistic, talking about steps he is taking to encourage conservation and get more power plants built by summer. And he has embarked on a costly program to keep the lights burning, at a rate of about $50 million a day or more than $2.7 billion so far.
But in a sign of lawmakers' frustration, Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) said many legislators are ready to cut off funds for electricity purchases.
"We can't continue burning through the general fund without a clear message from the administration about what the endgame is," Keeley said.
The Public Utilities Commission, whose chairperson is appointed by Davis, is supposed to implement a plan in which money from utility ratepayers' bills would repay $10 billion in bonds. Those bonds, in turn, would reimburse the budget for the money the state is spending to keep the lights on.