Blackout plan offers forecasts instead of warnings

The Associated Press
Thursday June 14, 2001

SACRAMENTO — In May, Gov. Gray Davis announced a plan to give Californians detailed warnings of rolling blackouts to help businesses and residents plan for outages. 

But a draft of the plan, obtained by The Associated Press, has changed the proposed one-hour “blackout warning” to a “probability forecast,” which one utility official called a “vague warning that’s wrong more often than it’s right.” 

The one-hour notice is expected to be wrong two-thirds of the time, because the Independent System Operator will continue to look for power to keep the lights on, said several people who participated in meetings to plan the blackout notifications. 

Under Davis’ plan, the ISO, manager of the state’s power grid, will also issue a 48-hour rolling blackout forecast and the 24-hour location notification. 

Peter Navarro, an economist with University of California, Irvine who works on energy issues, called the one-hour blackout notice “a very blunt instrument.” 

“It’s going to be like the typical California forecast – sunny, hot and dry with a chance of rolling blackouts,” Navarro said. “How do you prepare for that?” 

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services coordinated the plan to implement Davis’ order by consulting private and municipal utilities, the ISO and the Public Utilities Commission. The plan will be presented to Davis by Friday. 

Even after the issuing the 60-minute blackout notice, the state will keep looking for last-minute power, said ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle. “The public knows the ISO doesn’t have a crystal ball, but it can provide information to help them make critical decisions.” 

A utility official, who participated in the calls and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the one-hour blackout probability forecast “doesn’t come anywhere close to what’s been promised to the public. 

“Instead of a real one-hour notice of an outage that people can rely on and make plans for, they’re just going to get another vague warning that’s going to be wrong far more often than it’s right,” the executive said. The utilities will make the biggest differences in handling blackouts, said Steve Conroy, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, which participated in one of the conference calls. 

“There is more advance notice from the utilities to our customers,” Conroy said. 

Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. have joined Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in assigning customers a “block number” so they will know what neighborhood are next to be hit by a blackout. 

“The newest element that’s required is to make geographic information available to the public. It was already available to public safety offices,” said John Nelson, spokesman for PG&E. 

Blackout forecasts, Conroy said, are “very much like a weather forecast” and subject to change. McCorkle said forecasts will also encourage power conservation and further lessen the chance of blackouts. 

Eric Lamoureux, an emergency services spokesman, said the plan isn’t intended to predict a blackout but give a sense of when they’re likely. 

Utility customers don’t need a guarantee, just a warning that blackouts could occur, said Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumers’ Action Network. 

“The objective here is to allow customers to prepare for the eventuality of blackouts,” he said. “The people will not rebel if the lights stay on. What we do need is more than 30 minutes notice.” 

Jennifer Ng, the owner of Moonlight Cleaners in Elk Grove, said she’d welcome two days’ notice for blackout. It took her more than a week to catch up on work that a couple hours of blackouts halted at the dry cleaners, she said. 

“It affects businesses more than people think,” Ng said. “If I had more warning, I would be able to stay late the night before or bring in more people.” 

To really give a true blackout warning, Shames said, the ISO must “draw the line” and stop shopping for electricity to keep the lights on. 

Plus, Shames added, repeated false alarms could lose their effectiveness. “That’s why they shouldn’t be issued cavalierly.” 

Shames and Navarro have called for a price ceiling for last-minute power buys and a willingness to suffer blackouts in prices don’t come down. The Legislature is now considering a bill to allow state power buyers to stop shopping for power.