Under Threat of Blackouts, Some Users Conserve but Others Make Lightgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Under Threat of Blackouts, Some Users Conserve but Others Make Light
By NANCY RIVERA BROOKS and ERIC BAILEY, Times Staff Writers
The day after an unprecedented power emergency nearly led to statewide blackouts, Gov. Gray Davis blasted state power officials Friday while other Californians responded in predictably eclectic ways. Zapped by a dearth of power and the pain of rising utility bills, many citizens and businesses pledged to step up efforts to conserve energy. At the same time, others engaged in an unusual form of civil disobedience, defiantly vowing to keep their holiday lights on and to keep burning energy as they see fit.
Thanks to serious conservation around the state and the frantic efforts of dozens of exhausted technicians, California power officials were able to avoid another Stage 3 power emergency and keep the lights on even though several electricity-generating plants remained out of commission. But the twin crises in the electricity and natural gas markets are beginning to wear on consumers, and many called for government action to ease the growing woes.
California's energy headaches have grown severe for businesses like Higgins Brick Co., which plans to shut down its two huge brick baking kilns in Chino Hills next week and idle 80 employees because the family-owned company's utility bills have jumped more than tenfold. And repeated electricity interruptions this week, which left employees sitting in the dark for six hours at a time, have hampered the manufacturer's ability to make enough bricks to tide the company over until electricity and natural gas rates moderate.
"This is amazing. It's going to affect the whole economy," said Josh Higgins, one of the owners and a great-grandson of one of the company founders. Higgins Brick is trying to keep as many employees as possible on the payroll doing odd jobs, he said, "but who knows how long we'll be able to do that?" The pain that businesses and consumers are feeling now won't end soon, as Friday's events demonstrate: * The threat of rolling blackouts across California loomed again as the electricity grid for most of the state came close to running out of power for the fifth straight day. Only the city of Los Angeles and a few other municipalities served by their own utilities would be exempt if blackouts are ordered. * Electricity prices as high as $5,000 per megawatt-hour in neighboring states, which have no market caps, drew electrons out of California, further tightening supplies. The California Independent System Operator, which runs the grid and procures emergency power supplies for the state, took controversial steps to keep electricity within the state, chiefly by lifting the current price cap of $250 per megawatt-hour. * Scant power supplies in the Pacific Northwest threatened to cause electricity interruptions there and cut needed imports to California in half. * Natural gas prices in California continued to set records at levels 25 times higher than normal, driving bills higher for businesses and consumers. The recent steep climb of natural gas prices, which hit a new high of $60 per million British thermal units in Southern California, is boosting the price of electricity because nearly all in-state power plants are fueled by natural gas.
Electricity use peaked at about 32,600 megawatts while power plants generating about 9,500 megawatts--enough to power about 9.5 million homes--sat idle because of planned and emergency repairs or because of air pollution limits.
The grid serving about 75% of the state reached a Stage 2 emergency--the 26th this year--because the state was within 5% of running out of power, Cal-ISO reported. However, no businesses lost power Friday under the prearranged contracts that allow electricity cuts when supplies are short. The state endured its first Stage 3 emergency Thursday because electricity reserves were projected to fall below 1.5%, but no blackouts were required to keep the grid from collapsing. Rotating blackouts are a strong possibility on the Cal-ISO grid, which covers the territories served by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. If rotating blackouts were ordered, the only areas in the state exempt are those served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the utilities of Glendale, Burbank and parts of the Imperial Valley. Among the vulnerable municipal utilities are those serving Pasadena, Anaheim, Riverside and Vernon, which are connected to the Cal-ISO grid. "There are still a lot of megawatts not available," Cal-ISO spokesman Patrick Dorinson said, noting that the next several days will be difficult because of near-freezing temperatures in the Pacific Northwest. "Our neighbors are husbanding their [electricity] resources. This is going to be a problem from Salt Lake to San Francisco and from Seattle to San Diego."
Warnings Get a Mixed Reaction Up and down the state, reaction to the unprecedented power crunch varied dramatically Friday. While government and business leaders were anxious, many skeptical homeowners doubted the dire warnings. Perhaps no Californian was angrier than Gov. Davis, who called Cal-ISO's plan to ease the price cap of $250 per megawatt-hour, approved Friday by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, "an outrageous assault on the consumers and businesses of California" because it will cost the utilities and electricity users millions of extra dollars. Davis said he will work with the state Legislature to revamp the state nonprofit agency "in a way that will be responsive to Californians." Davis wants the regulatory commission to impose a cap of $100 per megawatt-hour for three years, and he called on the federal energy regulators to rescind the new cap, which Cal-ISO insists it needs to negotiate power deals for the state. The agency's mandate is to keep the power system operating at any cost.
Meanwhile, Southern California Edison detected signs of robust energy conservation Friday across its 50,000-square-mile territory and noted that some customers were phoning the Edison call center to report neighbors who switched on their holiday lights before the recommended 8 p.m.
But Jack Danielson, a third-generation rice farmer in Butte County, said his friends and family are thumbing their noses at the notion of an electricity crunch. Most think it's a ploy by the power companies. "It's a joke," said Danielson, who has turned his house into a display of 11,000 icicle lights. "They're up and burning. Turn them off? Nope. No, no, no."
Local governments were taking the warnings seriously, reviewing plans for dealing with widespread outages that might affect traffic signals. Small businesses and some homeowners, meanwhile, turned an eye to hardware store shelves overstocked with generators from the Y2K scare. "I sold two this morning," said Claude Guy, a salesman at Home Depot in Santa Ana. "One guy owned a company and said he couldn't take a chance that the power would go out on him."
The anxiety is probably greatest in the Silicon Valley, the state's most powerful economic engine and among the most intensive users of energy. Industrial firms fear a repeat of recent history, when rolling blackouts in the Bay Area in June cost an estimated $100 million by shutting down chip-making and other assembly lines before backup generators kicked in.
Since then, companies have been pushing state officials to streamline approval of power plants while taking steps to save energy. But in light of the recurring threats there, a degree of anxiety remains, said Michelle Montague-Bruno of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, an umbrella organization for 190 high-tech firms. "A lot of companies," she said, "are truly frustrated by what we've as a state gotten ourselves into." Intel Corp. is currently in its fifth episode this year of voluntary power reduction as a result of the shortage. The lighting in its 2.5 million square feet of California office space has been reduced by 60%, and office equipment is set to revert to a low-power "sleep" mode when not in use. By agreeing to make reductions now, Intel can reduce the risk that its power will be cut off entirely, said spokesman Chuck Malloy.
"We're in the third day of mood lighting right now," Malloy said. "We're knocking down quite a bit of energy consumption." Law enforcement officials around California were dusting off contingency plans in case traffic lights are knocked out. In some spots, police were stocking barricades in case they are needed to divert holiday crowds. But mostly it was a Friday composed of equal parts preparation and grumbling. Holiday shoppers were feeling like they had been hit by a megawatt Scrooge. "I was going to put outside lights on my house this weekend, but with the warning, now I'm not going to," said Jeremy Scott, 38, a San Francisco stockbroker. "It saves me a lot of work, but I'll miss having them." But others remain unpersuaded that such measures are needed. Jane Englebrecht, 35, a paralegal, said she's not doing a thing to conserve. "I think it's a scare tactic by PG&E to raise our rates," she said. "How could this happen so suddenly? It's a scam!" Warnings by utilities are being taken to heart in energy-impoverished San Diego County, where electricity bills soared during the summer to some of the highest rates in the country. At B.B.'s Deli in downtown San Diego, owner Al Kazzazi has a simple motive. "We lose power, we shut our doors," Kazzazi said. "We're trying to conserve every way we can. We turn down lights, only turn on the ice machine when it's needed. It's not enough, I guess." In Ventura, cigar store manager Suzi Hummer feared that a blackout could interrupt plans to let customers taste-test a wide slate of stogies. But if the lights dim, she said, "maybe the glow from the cigars would light it up a little." California's electric power emergency has fallen heaviest on manufacturers such as Ontario-based Oakwood Interiors, which has had to shut down operations nearly every night this week. The manufacturer of high-end bedroom sets for years has enjoyed an electricity-rate reduction of 18% for agreeing to curb usage when supplies get dangerously low. But what was once a sweet deal has turned out to be costly "nightmare," said Chief Executive Nick Lanphier, who says he has had to shut down 14 or 15 times so far this year, paying employees to stand around or forking out overtime when he rearranges shifts. Increasing prices to cover higher costs is not an option in the competitive furniture industry, so Lanphier is considering scaling back his manufacturing operation in favor of more imports, meaning fewer local manufacturing jobs. "The state had better wake up," he said, "and realize this is going to affect them too."
Times staff writers Karen Alexander, Mike Anton, Marc Ballon, James Bates, Marla Dickerson, Leslie Earnest, Robin Fields, Melinda Fulmer, Lisa Girion, Abigail Goldman, Karen Kaplan, Peter Pae, Tony Perry, E. Scott Reckard, David Reyes, Jesus Sanchez, Daryl Strickland, Mai Tran, Nancy Vogel, Jenifer Warren and Nancy Wride contributed to this story, along with Times researcher Norma Kaufman and correspondents Catherine Blake and Deniene Husted.
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