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Power Brownouts Possible across Southern California This Summer Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News Publication date: 2000-05-27
May 27--Consumers face the possibility of power blackouts this summer, prompted by a surge in the use of electronic gadgets, a booming California economy, and a rough transition from deregulation. A rare springtime "brownout" on Monday the first statewide power emergency this year forced hundreds of California businesses to cut power for a few hours. Because the alert came early in the year, rather than during a summer heat wave, energy officials expect more power outages to occur. Only one emergency alert was called all last year, in September.
"We all need to conserve our electricity use," said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the California ISO, which oversees 75 percent of California's electricity supply. "I don't want to paint a bleak picture, but we're going to do the best we can to make sure the lights stay on for Californians."
U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson joined the chorus of voices concerned about power blackouts, warning Friday that California is vulnerable.
"We are concerned because our electricity grid is very old, it's antiquated, and as more people use cell phones and faxes and technologies and computers, there's more strain on the system," Richardson told CBS News.
About one in four power plants in California is at least 30 years old and in need of repair. And Richardson suggested that deregulation was one culprit. When electricity deregulation was first proposed in the early 1990s by manufacturers that wanted lower rates, utilities delayed building new power plants out of concern that they would be unable to recoup costs.
As a result, no power plants have been built in California in the past seven years, said Claudia Chandler, a spokeswoman for the California Energy Commission, which is responsible for licensing power plants in the state.
The first new power plant in nearly a decade will begin operating in California in 2001. Five new power plants have been licensed since deregulation went into affect in 1998, and 11 new plants have been proposed.
To avoid more brownouts, consumers are being advised to cut back electricity use from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer. That's when people arrive home from work and turn on air conditioners and other appliances, even while commercial offices are still consuming electricity as well.
The watchdog agency that manages the state's electricity supply will warn consumers on "Power Watch" days through radio and TV ads much as consumers are warned about smog or traffic alerts.
"The toughest day of the week is Monday," said Dorinson, who said an emergency is likely to hit after a weekend heat wave, when offices become overheated and crank up air conditioning units to start the work week.
During the summer, when demand for electricity peaks, air conditioning in homes and commercial buildings in California each account for 14 percent of all electricity usage.
California officials also expressed concern about their ability to purchase surplus power from neighboring states. Robust economies and strong population growth in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona have caused those states to consume more of their own power and sell less to California, said Chandler. Meanwhile, demand in California is rising.
About 600,000 new residents move to California every year, adding to the state's total population of 34 million. All the added microwaves, TVs and computers guzzle electricity. And clothes-dryers consume about 2 percent of electricity during peak hours.
As a result, electricity demand is growing faster than the state's ability to generate or purchase power an annual boost of about 1,000 megawatts a day.
On average, about 25,000 to 35,000 megawatts of electricity are consumed every day in California from October to April. From June to September, demand can rise to 53,000 megawatts.
When a "Stage 2 emergency" was called Monday, interupting power to some commercial users, demand had soared to 42,000 megawatts. Though a heat wave in Northern California caused a surge in demand, the crisis was exacerbated by power plant repairs that made 6,000 megawatts of electricity unavailable.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 27, 2000