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THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Second Day of Blackouts Disrupts 500,000 Homes and Businesses

Power: Grid operators say the shortage should ease in the next few days, but officials see a grim summer.

March 21, 2001|MITCHELL LANDSBERG and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Electricity blackouts rolled through California for a second straight day Tuesday, disrupting business in one of the world's most technologically advanced economies and leaving schoolchildren groping in the dark.

Jinxed by a combination of bad luck and bad decisions, utilities were forced to cut off power to more than half a million homes and businesses from San Diego to the Oregon border.

By day's end, there was some good news from the operators of the statewide power grid, who said the situation had eased and appeared likely to improve for the next few days. And Gov. Gray Davis announced a proposed solution to one vexing problem: the utilities' failure to pay the state's small, alternative power generators, many of whom have stopped producing power as a result.

Davis called the utilities "shameful" for failing to pay, and praised the alternative power generators, which include solar, wind and geothermal energy producers, as "good corporate citizens" who produced power although they weren't being paid.

"We are anxious to pay the [small producers], who are dropping like flies," Davis said.

Despite the progress, it was hard for some people to look on the bright side after enduring outages that took place when the state's hunger for power was almost 50% less than at its summer peak.

"This is a taste, almost like an appetizer, of a really unpalatable meal that's going to be served up this summer," said Michael Shames of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, himself a victim of a rolling blackout that hit his office in San Diego early Tuesday.

Power officials have warned that this could be a grim summer in California, since demand for electricity sharply rises when people turn on air conditioners. The state has been struggling to meet its power needs in recent months because of rising prices and a flawed deregulation plan that has left the two biggest private utilities on the brink of bankruptcy. State leaders have so far failed to agree on a comprehensive plan to solve the problems.

The latest round of blackouts began about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday when the California Independent System Operator, which runs the statewide grid, determined that the demand for electricity was 500 megawatts more than the supply--an imbalance that meant the state was short on the power needed to supply electricity to about 375,000 homes.

Grid operators blamed a confluence of events, including warmer weather; outages at several major power plants, including one unit of the San Onofre nuclear power station; a reduction in imports from the Pacific Northwest, and the shutdown of many alternative energy producers. Similar blackouts Monday were the first since January.

The situation improved somewhat by late Tuesday morning, with some supplies restored and Californians conserving energy, and Cal-ISO was able to halt the rolling blackouts at 2 p.m.

Once again, customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were spared, although the municipally owned utility said its electrical surplus was smaller than usual. The DWP, like Southern California Edison, was affected by an outage at the huge Mohave power plant in Nevada, as well as by planned outages at several of its facilities.

As in the past, by far the biggest impact was felt by customers served by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's largest utility, which cut power to 438,000 homes and businesses.

Edison cut power to 47,462 customers in about 40 cities, but eventually was able to avoid blackouts by shutting off the air conditioners of some of the 118,500 customers who participate in a voluntary cutoff program.

San Diego Gas & Electric cut power to 73,400 customers.

Innovative Ways of Coping

As on Monday, most people took the outages in stride, as an annoying but ultimately unavoidable inconvenience.

In Palmdale, four schools lost power during one of the hourlong blackouts, but teachers and students pressed on in the sunlight pouring through windows and skylights. At Barrel Springs Elementary, Principal Cruz Earls said the biggest problem came when students had to go to the bathroom: Hand in hand, they made their way through darkened hallways with flashlights.

All in all, it wasn't a terrible experience. Then again, the weather wasn't that hot Tuesday, with a high of 79 in Palmdale, so the shutdown of air conditioners wasn't much of a hardship. "I don't want to think about the conditions this could create in May or June," Earls said.

Businesses of all kinds complained about the lack of warning for the outages--and sometimes found innovative ways to get around the problem.

Rattled by news reports of Monday's rolling blackouts, El Burrito Mexican Food Products in the city of Industry started its Tuesday shift at 2 a.m. to beat the clock in the event of an outage. That hunch paid off. Workers had just finished cooking and packaging the last batches of salsa and masa when the lights went out at 10:20 a.m.

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