Record Heat Pushes California Power Close to Breaking
LOS ANGELES A record-breaking heat wave pushed California's power grid close to the breaking point Monday, but by evening it appeared the first rolling blackouts in five years had been averted, power managers said.
"It looks like we dodged a bullet," said Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, after power use had peaked.
Earlier Monday, authorities issued dire warnings that they might have to resort to rolling blackouts, spurring urgent pleas for the public to take steps to conserve power.
In a situation that recalled the 2000-2001 energy crisis, an estimated 100,000 Californians were without electricity earlier in the day, a number than dwindled as the hours passed. More than 1 million homes and businesses were without power during the weekend, the state's largest utilities said.
The heat is blamed for the deaths of at least four Californians.
Health officials said one man died in a Stockton nursing home Sunday after the air conditioning gave out as temperatures reached a sweltering 115 degrees F.
In Modesto, hospital officials said a patient died of heart failure after being admitted with a temperature of 106 degrees F 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, the California ISO called a "Stage 2" power emergency. This means utilities may cut or reduce power to businesses that 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 are "Stage 3." The last Stage 3 was called in May 2001.
With another record day for power demand was forecast on Tuesday, conservation was still important, said Marlon Walker of Southern California Edison, which serves 4.7 million homes and businesses.
"Conservation is absolutely necessary. It's not just key or guidance. It is absolutely necessary if we are going to avoid rolling blackouts," Walker said.
Cal ISO record demand Monday peaked at 50,270 megawatts in mid-afternoon, 11 percent higher than the peak record set last summer, and 21 percent higher than the most electricity California used during the 2000-2001 energy crisis.
Since the energy crisis, when rotating blackouts were frequent 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 of failure 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."
Temperatures are expected near record levels over much of California Tuesday, forecasters said. Sacramento hit a high of 107 F (41.66C) on Monday with forecasts for 106 F (41.11C) on Tuesday and 99 Fahrenheit (37.22 C) on Wednesday.
A megawatt in California can usually power about 700 homes, but the number served per megawatt drops during record usage.
The Cal ISO transmits 80 percent of the state's electricity.
(Additional reporting by Leonard Anderson in San Francisco and Scott DiSavino in New York, and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles)