With the threat of blackouts looming again, the nonprofit corporation that keeps electricity humming through 25,000 miles of California transmission lines plugged an experienced engineer into its top job Friday.
The California Independent System Operator, which runs the transmission grid for most of the state, said its new chief executive was Yakout Mansour, who until recently headed the power transmission system for British Columbia's provincial utility.
The hiring of the 57-year-old industry veteran won widespread approval despite a curious accident of timing: California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Thursday sued the Canadian utility's electricity trading arm, claiming it overcharged Californians by $850 million during the 2000-01 energy crisis. Powerex Corp., a unit of British Columbia Hydro & Power Authority, denied wrongdoing and accused California of trying to deflect blame for its botched market deregulation.
For his part, Mansour said he was always "an-arm's-and-a-leg's length" away from BC Hydro's electricity sales. Even Lockyer's office praised the hiring.
"From what we know about the guy, he is a pro's pro and is one of the most respected people in his field," Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said.
Cal-ISO board member Michael Florio, an attorney with the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco advocacy group, called Mansour "an all-star of transmission" whose expertise could help the grid overcome predicted supply shortfalls.
Electricity generator spokesman Jan Smutny-Jones complained that Folsom-based Cal-ISO had been "somewhat rudderless" in recent years.
"Bringing someone in from outside like Yakout, who is familiar with the West and can direct a regional transmission system, is a very positive hire," said Smutny-Jones, director of the Independent Energy Producers Assn., which represents power plant operators.
Mansour faces the immediate challenge of avoiding possible electricity blackouts this summer, when supplies are projected to be tight. He also must push Cal-ISO to cut its high operating costs and finish the design of a new wholesale market structure that already is four years behind schedule, energy experts said.
Mansour's appointment ends a nine-month search to replace former CEO Terry Winter.
California's electricity system has changed enormously since the state opened its deregulated energy markets in 1998. That year, Cal-ISO and a sister agency, the California Power Exchange, launched markets in which the state's onetime monopoly utilities bought electricity from independent power sellers. Many of those electricity suppliers had purchased the power plants once owned by Edison International's Southern California Edison Co., PG&E Corp.'s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
The deregulation experiment failed in 2001 under the weight of record prices, rolling blackouts and utility insolvency. The Power Exchange, intended to be the state's primary electricity market, went out of business. The state's current market is an unwieldy hybrid that gets power from both investor-owned utilities such as Southern California Edison, which are regulated by the state, and independent generators, which aren't.
To keep sufficient reserves available, Mansour must move quickly to cultivate better relations with the state's municipal utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which aren't part of the Cal-ISO grid. In the past, the agency has "alienated and done permanent harm to our ability to have investor-owned utilities and munis work together," said V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology, a Sacramento-based advocate for conservation and the use of alternative power sources.
In his last job, Mansour was senior vice president of system operations for British Columbia Transmission Corp., which was spun off in 2003 from British Columbia Hydro.
Cal-ISO's board also elected consultant Ken Wiseman as chairman.