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Blackouts hit California as utilities' financial woes deepen

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Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001 10:00 pm

Californians face a second day of rolling blackouts today as the state readied to spend millions to keep electricity flowing and prevent money-strapped utilities from going broke.

Hours after people across northern and central California saw everything from their lights to their heaters, elevators and bank machines abruptly switched off, Gov. Gray Davis ordered the state to temporarily start buying power from wholesalers and provide it to power-short utilities.

"I'm declaring a state of emergency in California," the governor said during a late-night news conference Wednesday.

Energy officials said that today could be even more difficult. Just a minute after midnight, the the Independent System Operator, keeper of the state power grid, issued a Stage 3 alert, with power reserves approaching or falling below 1.5 percent.

"It's almost a carbon coby of yesterday, a little better but not much," ISO spokesman Patrick Dorinson said just before dawn today.

The ISO had 75 percent of the power the state needs for the day lined up and is scrambling to find the rest to avoid blackouts, he said.

An unstable market, the Pacific Northwest's own limited supplies of hydroelectric power and other woes meant the state was likely to be searching the open market for as much as 55 percent of its power during peak use periods today.

In Lodi on Wednesday, the lights started to go out at 12:29 p.m.

The controlled blackout, which lasted for 90 minutes, was conducted by Lodi's electric utility department at the behest of the California Independent System Operator, keeper of the state power grid.

Emergency services, Lodi Memorial Hospital and manufacturers were unaffected, said Allan Vallow, the city's electric utilities director.

Lodi police reported nothing out of the ordinary took place Wednesday during the blackout.

No officers were pulled from their routine patrol duties and no additional patrols were needed during the blackout, Lt. J.P. Badel said.

Although he doesn't anticipate the need for such patrols, they would be added if necessary, he said.

It doesn't appear that the blackouts will be a major problem for Lodi's fire department either, Division Chief Verne Person said.

Each of the city's fire stations are equipped with generators, and several mobile generators are available to provide power for nursing homes and other establishments if the need for emergency power arises, he said.

In areas served by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which includes most of Northern California, about 200,000 customers experienced outages which lasted from 60 to 90 minutes, said PG&E spokeswoman Carrie Madill.

She was unsure Wednesday afternoon of exactly how long the situation will last.

Many of Lodi's largest users voluntarily cut back their power consumption Wednesday.

General Mills, which is capable of generating its own power, even pumped around half a megawatt - about enough to light 500 typical homes - back into the power grid.

GM Plant Manager Bob Wheeler said he is employing an approach which incorporates conservation, self-generation and shifting power-intensive jobs to times of day when the grid is off-peak.

"Obviously, this is a situation which could become very serious," Wheeler said. "We will do everything we can to cut back our power use, especially during peak hours."

Vallow said the first section on the grid to be shut down, in northwest Lodi, had approximately 1,500 customers. Police volunteers manned major intersections along Turner Road to handle traffic prior to instructions being issued for the shutdown to commence.

The largest businesses affected were Wine & Roses Country Inn and Salisbury's Market, both of which are at the intersection of Turner and Lower Sacramento roads.

Despite the fact the blackout occurred during the middle of the lunch hour, it posed only a minimal set of difficulties at Wine & Roses, spokeswoman Anne Forshey said.

"Our kitchen uses gas for cooking and our dining area has plenty of windows."

The story was similar across the street at Salisbury's Market, said checker Cindy Geigle.

"It slowed us down, but it didn't shut us down," she said, explaining that checkers used battery-powered calculators at the registers to total customers' bills.

Other area businesses were hit much harder - particularly small retailers. Patrons at service stations in the affected area were unable to pump gas during the blackout, and some businesses lost considerable chunks of their daily revenues.

Vicki Rathburn, owner of the Book Plaza and Postal Connection in the Woodlake Plaza shopping center, said she was unable to make a number of shipments, and that many of her computer files were damaged by the outage.

"We lost a whole lot of business, that's for sure," she said Wednesday afternoon as she worked to repair the files and catch up on customers' orders.

The second block of customers was taken off line for only two minutes when the order to restore was given by the ISP, Vallow said. The additional blackouts he was expecting at about 6 p.m. did not occur, but late Wednesday night he was anticipating the state's midnight update regarding more outages.

He told council members at their meeting Wednesday he is positive Lodi would be on another Stage 3 watch today.

For Lodi power customers, the rolling blackouts are likely to become a way of life until state and federal government agencies become willing to intervene with an effective solution to the crisis, Vallow said.

The emergency measures passed by the state late Tuesday are more symbolic than substantive, and are likely to offer little real relief, he said.

"There is very little incentive for out-of-state providers to sell power when they are virtually guaranteed they will never be paid," Vallow said.

On the Net: California Independent System Operator

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