Many spared blackouts, increasing them for others

The Associated Press
Friday May 25, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Rolling blackouts could hit some California businesses and residents more frequently this summer as the number of customers exempted from the outages continues to grow. 

The pool of ratepayers available for rolling blackouts has shrunk as hospitals, public transportation systems and even some cities have won the right to keep their electricity flowing when energy supplies falter. 

Nursing homes, water-filtration systems and organ-donor labs are among the thousands of businesses lobbying the state Public Utilities Commission for similar “public safety” exemptions – as are amusement parks and baseball stadiums. 

The more exemptions, the more blackouts for businesses and residents not fortunate enough to live next to a hospital or otherwise share a circuit with an exempt customer. 

“Every ’essential customer’ we have will thrust more blackouts on others,” PUC Commissioner Richard Bilas said Thursday. 

When rolling blackouts sweep across California, utilities must steer clear of institutions the PUC deems “essential services,” a list that includes hospitals, prisons, military bases and electric trains. 

Half of the electricity used at times of highest demand this summer is now off-limits to rolling blackouts, said Jonathan Lakritz, an aide to PUC Commissioner Carl Wood. 

Of the other half, the Independent System Operator wants the emergency outages it declares to be spread among at least 40 percent, so that no single customer bears too much of the burden. Blackouts are declared when the ISO, keeper of the state’s power grid, fails to find enough energy supplies to meet demand. 

“Forty percent is the magic number,” Lakritz said. “You wouldn’t want to be in a situation where the same person is blacked out day after day and all day long.” 

That leaves room for about 10 percent more of the state’s power users on the PUC’s coveted list of exempted “essential services.” And all sorts of customers are clamoring for relief. 

A bill heard this week in the Senate Energy Committee would exempt millions of additional residential users who live in climates that routinely reach 105 degrees. 

“They are just very afraid,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, told the Senate Energy Committee. “It’s just damn hot and they’re afraid it will overwhelm them.” 

Southern California Edison Co. said 35 percent of its customers would bear the brunt of rolling blackouts if all areas that reached 105 degrees within the utility’s territory were exempt. 

Customers of public utilities are increasingly off limits as well. Palo Alto, Alameda and other cities which generate or buy their own electricity have developed conservation plans to avoid triggering blackouts for their customers by sharply reducing power use when supplies are tight, and are asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for an official exemption. 

The city of Lodi has spent millions on long-term power contracts that were expensive at the time, but now seem cheap. It therefore has abundant electricity for its customers, and refuses to participate in statewide rolling blackouts. 

“A utility that planned properly shouldn’t be part of this, ’let’s share the pain thing,”’ said Alan Vallow, Lodi’s electrical utility director. 

Faced with growing demand for exemptions, the PUC has asked all California businesses to file requests by June 1. By early August – after two full months of hot summer weather, critics point out – it plans to exempt those that demonstrate the greatest value to public health and safety. 

The PUC hopes having open applications will alert them to potential hazards they might not have considered. Without constant power, factories that produce vital vaccines or medicines could fall behind production, or chemical storage plants could rupture, commissioners said. 

The delay frustrates groups such as the California Association of Health Facilities, which since April has asked the PUC for an exemption for the 1,300 nursing homes and convalescent centers it represents statewide that are not covered under the hospital exemption. 

“We’ve got ventilators, we’ve got oxygen, we’ve got feeding tubes,” said Betsy Hite, spokeswoman for the group. Their equipment “is so closely mirroring a hospital it’s just ridiculous.” 

Kathy Zeitcheck, director of nursing at St. Francis Extended Care in Hayward, said losing the air conditioning would endanger frail patients with high blood pressure and respiratory ailments. 

“They don’t have any fat on their arms and legs and body; they don’t have the natural insulation that you and I do,” Zeitcheck said. “So of course they’re not going to be able to cool off as you or I would.” 

Water agencies are also in line for an exemption, saying they can’t provide water to hospitals and emergency workers without electricity to power the pumps – demonstrating the challenge regulators face as they determine which pieces of the puzzle are vital for public safety. 

“Maybe an outage is only for an hour. But potentially, water systems could be down for two days while we go through all the checks and balances,” said Jennifer Persike-Becker, spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies.