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L.A. can chill: DWP says threat of summer blackouts lessened

July 13, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to avoid the rolling blackouts that plagued Southern California last year, Los Angeles officials said Thursday they are far better prepared for more record heat this summer, but they implored residents to conserve energy.

Since last summer, the Department of Water and Power has spent more than $13.5 million replacing or repairing 3,000 faulty electrical transformers around the city, including the 303 responsible for power outages last July, officials said. Several thousand more back-up transformers are ready for service in the event of massive surges.

"These heat storms aren't going to go away," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a news conference at the DWP's Van Nuys service yard. "We are better prepared and better equipped than ever before for the first time in a long time. We're emphasizing proactive maintenance."

According to the California Energy Commission website, heat storms occur when temperatures exceed 100 degrees over a large area for three days in a row. Nighttime temperatures remain high during these heat spells, so buildings and homes don't cool and energy use climbs.

Last summer, the city experienced a week of 100-degree-plus temperatures, prompting residential customers to increase their energy use, overheating transformers with an all-time peak of 6,165 megawatts of power. More than 79,000 of the DWP's 1.4 million customers lost service during the ensuing blackouts, some for up to three days.

"That was a wake-up call to the utility," said David Nahai, president of the DWP board. "Nobody at DWP really knew that our customers could generate that kind of energy demand."

The DWP -- which can generate 7,477 megawatts -- delivered 5,275 megawatts July 3, the highest daily total this year. A single megawatt is equal to 1 million watts and can serve up to 250 homes.

But DWP officials also acknowledge that the demand for power has risen steadily since 2001 as residential customers plug in more energy-consuming gadgets. The department has signed agreements with private contractors for staffing assistance in the event of a prolonged heat wave.

"Nobody at the department is going to claim that we found the perfect solution or that we can guarantee that there'll be no outages," Nahai said. "But we're not going to fall asleep at the wheel."

A June report on the reliability and readiness of the DWP system found that last summer's heat storm was an anomaly that is not expected to occur again soon. High evening temperatures led many residents to keep their cooling systems on all night, leaving the transformers no time to cool down. New transformers are equipped with temperature gauges to help avoid overheating.

The DWP's 3,000 back-up transformers also are significant insurance against mass blackouts this summer, officials said. Last year, a shortage of replacements led to longer outages.

But DWP and other utility companies are still wary of the potential for more blackouts. Last summer, 0.2% of Southern California Edison's transformers failed simultaneously, and more than 1 million customers lost power.

For this summer, Edison has replaced 9,000 poles and transformers, said Ron Litzinger, senior vice president of Edison's transmission and distribution business unit. The company also has pledged $13 billion over the next five years to strengthen its power grid, Litzinger said.

Meanwhile, the DWP still faces a plethora of upkeep issues, including outdated equipment and infrastructure in portions of the Valley, downtown and harbor areas that could jeopardize the stability of its power supply during peak periods.

"It's going to be hard for them to have blackouts more severe than the ones last year," said Michael Shames, executive director of the Southern California-based Utilities Consumer Action Network. "The DWP's deferred maintenance began to catch up to them, rearing its very ugly head in an obvious way. The big question now is are they all caught up?"

In June, DWP General Manager Ronald F. Deaton presented a $1-billion plan for long-term upgrades and maintenance to the city's Energy and Environment Committee. It could potentially be funded by a surcharge on customers' energy bills.



In the dark


What to do if the power goes out:

* Always keep a flashlight and extra batteries nearby. Never use candles.

* Turn off and unplug all appliances and other electrical equipment.

* Leave one light turned on so you will know when your power returns. It also helps to prevent circuit overloading, which could delay restoration of service.

To report a power outage, call the DWP's 24-hour hotline at (800) DIAL-DWP. For more information, visit the department's website at

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