California struggles again to keep the lights on

With reserves on the razor's edge, California Tuesday braced for the possibility of rolling blackouts. But during a 2 p.m. PST briefing, officials said they are optimistic they can squeak by without having involuntary power interruptions. Complicating Tuesday's emergency was a default by Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) Tuesday on debt payments to creditors, including the California Independent System Operator and the California Power Exchange.


With reserves on the razor's edge, California braced for the possibility of rolling blackouts. But during a 2 p.m. PST briefing, officials said they are optimistic they can squeak by without instituting involuntary power interruptions.

Complicating Tuesday's emergency was a default by Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) Tuesday on debt payments to creditors, including the California Independent System Operator and the California Power Exchange. That is making it difficult to buy power, officials for the grid operator conceded.

�The solvency of the investor-owned utilities is impacting us. The suppliers don�t know if they will get paid,� says Kellan Fluckiger, chief operating officer for the ISO.

Southern California Edison Co., a unit of Edison International, halted payment Tuesday on $215 million owed the ISO. The ISO buys power from suppliers on behalf of utilities. Because of a state-imposed rate freeze, the utilities have been paying more for wholesale power than they can collect from retail customers.

In addition, the ISO is still grappling with problems caused by generation outages. Fluckiger said nearly 10,600 Mw are off line today. The ISO is forecasting a peak load of 32,300 Mw.

Several power plants went down unexpectedly over the weekend and imports are not at a high enough level to get through the peak this evening, he predicted.

�Imports are only 2,700 Mw,� he says. �We need 4,000 to 5,000 Mw of imports to get through.�

However, Fluckiger said he is optimistic ISO will not need to cut off power in a series of rolling blackouts this evening. He indicated negotiations for additional power are ongoing.

Conditions prompting this morning's Stage 3 were eased after the California Department of Water Resources freed up 600 Mw by shutting down aquifer pumps, he says. But Fluckiger said he could prevail upon the Water Resources Department for only so much aid. Conservation will play a key role in avoiding blackouts today, he said.

�I know everyone is tired of hearing this. But we need to take conservation seriously. It will take 2,000 Mw off the peak to get through today,� he says. �I hope the public is not getting jaded.�

ISO officials said they did not expect so many problems during the winter months, normally California's nonpeaking season. Efforts to keep the electricity flowing now may hamper supply during the summer peak.

Imports from the Northwest are supposed to slacken during winter months as reservoirs fill to prepare hydroelectric systems for heavier demand in the late spring and summer. But California has prevailed on suppliers in the Northwest to send as much power as possible to California now.

�The Northwest water situation is bad,� says Fluckiger. �A hydro operator faced with an emergency might use the water now in hopes that it will rain in the future. It�s hard to say how much longer they will be willing to take that chance to send power to California.�

Already worried about the summer, Fluckiger said the peaking plant construction program approved by state officials last fall is falling through.

The ISO requested projects totaling 3,000 Mw. After getting responses for 4,000 Mw, the ISO approved 2,000 Mw as viable projects and signed contracts to get 1,200-1,400 Mw built.

�We have had withdrawals from the program. We are down to 700 Mw and we may lose more,� he says.

Fluckiger warns that he has only three choices to keep the electricity flowing:

� Reduce load at peak.

� Build a bunch of power plants

� Have rolling blackouts

More in General Interest