July 24, 2006

Record heat pushes Calif. power close to breaking

By Bernie Woodall

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A record-breaking heat wave pushed
California's power grid close to breaking point on Monday, with
rolling blackouts possible unless people turn down air
conditioning and take other steps to save power, managers of
the power grid said.

In a situation that recalled the 2000-2001 energy crisis,
an estimated 100,000 Californians were without power on Monday,
down from more than 1 million homes and businesses over the
weekend, the state's largest utilities said.

The heat is blamed for the deaths of at least four people.

Health officials said one man died in a Stockton nursing
home on Sunday after the air conditioning gave out as
temperatures reached a sweltering 115 degrees F (46 C).

In Modesto, hospital officials said a patient died of heart
failure after being admitted with a temperature of 106 degrees
F (41 C) and authorities in Kern County were investigating
whether heat caused four deaths, including two from last week.

With reserve supplies on the power grid dwindling as
temperatures rise into triple digits across the state, the
California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO) called a
"Stage 2" power emergency. This means utilities may cut or
reduce power to businesses that have agreed to respond when
such an emergency occurs in return for lower rates.

It was the first time since summer 2005 that a Stage 2
emergency was called, said Lori O'Donley of the Cal ISO.

Rolling involuntary blackouts, "Stage 3," will occur on
Monday if the reserve margin for power is cut around the time
of peak demand at 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT). The last Stage 3 was
called in May 2001.

That can be avoided if consumers raise thermostats and cut
off unnecessary appliances, said Marlon Walker of Southern
California Edison, which serves 4.7 million homes and


"Conservation is absolutely necessary. It's not just key or
guidance. It is absolutely necessary if we are going to avoid
rolling blackouts," said Walker.

Through midday Monday, the power grid was holding up and
most utilities reported no major outages.

Cal ISO expects record demand on Monday at 52,300
megawatts, 15 percent higher than the peak record set last
summer, and 26 percent higher than the most electricity
California used during the 2000-2001 energy crisis.

Since the energy crisis, when rotating blackouts were
common in California, several major changes have been made in
the way power is traded, said O'Donley.

Back then, almost all power delivered in California was
purchased in a next-day spot market, which companies such as
the disgraced and bankrupt Enron Corp. exploited to their
advantage. Prices on the California electricity spot market
rose ten-fold during the height of the crisis and power
delivery was unreliable.

More power plants and better power lines have also helped.

Still, as those plants and transformers on power poles
across the state continue to work hard in high heat, the
chances they could fail rise, said O'Donley.

"The grid is working," O'Donley said. "But it's critical
that everything stay operational. We've got to keep our fingers
crossed that everything stays working. They have been running
full bore."

Weather forecasters said temperatures would reach 106
degrees F in Sacramento, and near 110 F in the San Fernando
Valley near Los Angeles. While some areas will not be as hot as
they were over the weekend, power demand is higher on Monday
because businesses are open.

A megawatt in California can usually power about 700 homes,
but the number served per megawatt drops during record usage.

(Additional reporting by Leonard Anderson in San Francisco
and Scott DiSavino in New York, and Jill Serjeant in Los