July 25, 2006

California Heat Wave May Trigger Rolling Blackouts

NEW YORK -- As the death toll from a scorching heat wave rose and record demand tested the state's power supply, energy managers feared they may have to trigger rolling blackouts.

The National Weather Service issued another excessive heat warning for Tuesday, with temperatures expected to reach as high as 112 degrees in the Los Angeles area.

Authorities were investigating at least 29 possible heat-related deaths since the heat wave set in on July 16. Most were in the sizzling Central Valley, where temperatures have been in the triple digits and were forecast to top 100 for a few more days.

The intense heat pushed electricity use to 50,270 megawatts on Monday - a record for California. Government agencies and businesses have helped the state avoid rolling blackouts so far, but energy officials expected another close with the rising temperature Tuesday.

"We still have our guard up," said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's power grid.

The ISO on Monday declared a "Stage 2" emergency, which called for some businesses to reduce their power use in exchange for lower rates. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also directed state agencies to reduce electricity use by 25 percent by turning off unnecessary equipment; local governments and universities were urged to do the same.

By Monday evening, the ISO had downgraded the emergency to a "Stage 1," relieving businesses that had agreed to reduce power, but consumers were still asked to keep their electricity consumption down.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat running for governor, criticized the Schwarzenegger administration for its handling of the state's energy resources. "We shouldn't be asking businesses to shut down or the elderly to turn off their air conditioners," he told reporters.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Julie Soderlund defended the state's utilities, noting they met California's power supply needs amid record temperatures.

Utilities in St. Louis and New York were still laboring to restore power to thousands of customers whose electricity was knocked out last week by storms and equipment failures.

More than 200,000 homes and businesses in the St. Louis area were without electricity Monday, down from the more than a half-million after storms on Wednesday knocked down power lines.

Ameren Corp. (AEE) Vice President Richard Mark said Monday that 90 percent of those without power could have the lights back on by Tuesday, and the rest on Wednesday.

"You're supposed to have a backup plan in case something like this happens," said Dana Moorhead, who had no power Monday. "All my food's gone bad. Just going home is depressing."

Mark said some of the most critical damage was to high-powered "feeder" lines that run from electrical substations to residential neighborhoods, where lower-capacity lines carry power to homes and businesses.

In New York, thousands of residents entered their ninth day without electricity Tuesday, while the local utility worked around the clock to restore its service - and its image.

Consolidated Edison Co. said early Tuesday that about 1,000 customers in Queens remained without electricity, an improvement from the roughly 25,000 out at the height of the blackout but not enough to quell the anger. Officials have estimated there are four residents per customer, meaning 100,000 people might have been affected.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor, said that Con Edison "failed to heed the warnings" from an earlier blackout and that oversight of the utility has been "wholly inadequate."

The heat has taken a deadly toll in California, where Fresno County Coroner Loralee Cervantes reported 10 possible heat-related deaths in her area, including a man in his 40s found on a lawn Sunday with a body temperature higher than 109 degrees. Kern County Coroner John Van Rensselaer said a woman collapsed and died while walking a half-mile from her home to a drugstore in Ridgecrest, about 30 miles from Death Valley.

State officials were also investigating a Stockton nursing home for possible negligence after a patient died during the weekend after the air conditioner gave out in 115-degree weather.