Utilities relent: Blackout maps to be posted on Net

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Published Saturday, June 16, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Utilities relent: Blackout maps to be posted on Net

BY LAURA KURTZMAN Mercury News After months of resistance, California's large electric utilities will begin posting maps on the Internet with street-level detail of where rolling blackouts may occur, along with one-hour warnings of when state power grid managers expect to pull the plug.

The policy, announced Friday by state power officials, complies with an order issued by Gov. Gray Davis in May and gives consumers much more information than they have had about forced outages.

Pacific Gas & Electric planned to have provisional maps on their Web site by today. PG&E spokesman John Nelson said more detailed maps should be posted early next week.

PG&E keeps a running list of the blocks that are up next for blackouts, and they can be seen on the company's Web site (www.pge. com). They also are available by calling (800) PGE-5000. Once a one-hour warning has been given, customers can check on the utility's Web site to see which of those blocks have been selected.

The Internet maps will be searchable by street addresses or Zip codes and will enable customers to find out which parts of their city are likely to go black.

A single city contains customers in many different service blocks, so when one or more blocks are selected, it creates a patchwork of outages. Block numbers are listed on customers' PG&E bills.

But some, notably PG&E, worry the warnings will not prove useful if they fizzle into false alarms or -- even worse -- tip off criminals about which neighborhoods are likely to be affected.

State officials dismissed the latter concern, saying officials in Chicago have employed a similar system without ill effects.

``We have complete confidence that there are no real hidden public safety issues in this,'' said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services (OES).

He said consumers should congratulate themselves if blackouts failed to materialize.

``If the lights don't go out, the people should be in their rooms clapping, because the rest of the state has done a great job conserving energy,'' Jones said.

Electricity users may also receive blackout warnings via e-mail and pager from OES's emergency digital information service, which is available on its Web site (www.oes.ca.gov) and delivers official information about emergencies and disasters.

The California Independent System Operator will issue the warnings when power supplies fall below a certain point, the weather threatens to get hot or power plants go offline. The alerts will come 48 hours, 24 hours and one hour before a possible blackout.

At the one-hour mark, when electric utilities have a better idea of the extent of the power shortage, they will specify which of the state's 14 service blocks already scheduled for an outage are likely to be affected. Law enforcement agencies will be informed 90 minutes ahead of time.

Blackouts can be averted by a sudden infusion of power, and many of the warnings may not materialize. In fact, during a test run of the new system on May 31, an afternoon warning turned out to be a false alarm, as power officials found power at the last minute.

Davis adopted the new plan after visiting officials in Chicago. Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the governor's office, said that far from being a tip sheet for criminals, the early warning proved a crucial aid to police, who were able to monitor traffic intersections and help vulnerable residents.

``If you let people know ahead of time, they're better prepared,'' Salazar said. ``And also you'll have stronger police presence.''

But Nelson said PG&E has resisted such detailed information for years, fearing it would be used by robbers and other criminals.

``Nothing about the way this is structured eliminates that concern,'' Nelson said. ``We're hopeful that this won't be used for illegal purposes.''

The new system was cheered by the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, which has lobbied the governor for more notice of potential blackouts.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 16, 2001

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