California Triggers Blackouts Due Power Shortage.
January 17, 2001 1:21 PM   Subscribe

California Triggers Blackouts Due Power Shortage. Me no speak complete sentences. Looks like everyone is giving conservation a shot, though.
posted by hijinx (35 comments total)
These stories sound like the second chapter of a post-apocolyptic novel. You know - chapter one, introduce the hero, see how utterly bizarre America is in the year 2250, chapter two, flashback explanation to how it all started going terribly wrong.

I bet William Gibson is laughing right now.
posted by kristin at 1:34 PM on January 17, 2001

Hasn't somebody figured out how to make solar work well yet? There's a zillion miles of desert out here and the sun's ready and willing... LOL. Maybe the day of huge central power plants is on the decline? I absolutely REFUSE to pedal a stationary bike just to watch tv though. heh heh. Hell, I heard about this place in Scotland that just installed a generator that makes electricity using the ocean waves on the shore - the in and out motion creates the power, and the technology shouldn't need updating for a hundred years (sorry I don't have any links on this.) Supposedly it completely powers a village of 100 dwellings. California has a LOT of shoreline that's also ready and willing...
posted by thunder at 1:44 PM on January 17, 2001

Remember this the next time someone keeps saying that deregulation is the one and only solution to a problem. Yes, I know that this situation came out of a market where the regulations were changed rather than removed but still... The other interesting thing is how obviously bad the decisions that led to this were. I suppose hindsight is perfect.
posted by rdr at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2001

thunder: the link.
The problem with wave power though at the moment is it just doesn't satisfy the huge power requirements we have. Also kind of mucks up shipping too.
posted by Markb at 2:02 PM on January 17, 2001

my office just got hit by a blackout about 30 minutes ago. And when i was leaving home this morning the power went off as well. On my walk to work i saw accidents being cleared up in two intersections a half mile apart...wondering if the stoplights going off caused it...Crazy stuff.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:05 PM on January 17, 2001

This is by far my favorite headline that I've seen so far with the California power debacle.

Better duck, California!
posted by Skot at 2:20 PM on January 17, 2001

Well, us in South San Fransisco just got our power back after two hours of darkness-- good thing it's sunny!

Nothing like a mandatory break from the day.
posted by schlomo at 2:25 PM on January 17, 2001

Soylent Green is people!!!

Oh wait, sorry. Blame it on "Thunder"
posted by Outlawyr at 2:28 PM on January 17, 2001

We're downtown san francisco, 3rd and harrison, and luckily it has yet to go out... But i'm waiting at the door with bag in hand, ready to go home.....
posted by jessie at 2:32 PM on January 17, 2001

I'm curious to see what happened to folks. News reports here in Chicago are saying that people got stuck in elevators or (horrors) ATM screens went blank mid-transaction. And, naturally, I hope everyone is okay.
posted by hijinx at 2:47 PM on January 17, 2001

Here is a good article about the problems and who's to blame. Apperantly it's the internet, i knew it was evil :)
posted by Zool at 2:48 PM on January 17, 2001

What do you think of that agreement though? 5 cents was it? Do you see the power going to 1-2 cents any time within 5 years?
posted by tiaka at 2:48 PM on January 17, 2001

hey, is this the REAL y2k bug that they talk about in the bible and stuff?
posted by afx114 at 2:48 PM on January 17, 2001

Thanks for the link, markb. The 'wave power' idea may not be perfect, but isn't it cool? LOL. I mean - maybe there is no ONE solution to all of this, but a LOT of SMALLER ones - solar and hydro and wind (and wave and fuel cells and...) where they can be used best, and in many combinations. There's lots of talk about the ineffectuality of big government, could big power be any different? Anyway - just gives me a lot to mull over, it does. Outlawyr - to quote Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, "It's not my fault!" :-)
posted by thunder at 3:15 PM on January 17, 2001

It's just like Sim City!
posted by Neb at 3:50 PM on January 17, 2001

Does anyone have any links about what's going to be effected? Will the MUNI still run? Will I even be able to get home from work? I can't seem to find any practical information about this.

Meanwhile, isn't it just plain absurd that we've gotten to this point? It's 2001, and I may not have power or heat at my house when I get home.
posted by megnut at 3:51 PM on January 17, 2001

"Do most security alarms have battery backups?"

Yes, they do - or, they are supposed many people actually check the batteries, I don't know. I never do. I also worry about the security aspects...sometimes people get very, very weird in situations like this.
posted by kristin at 3:52 PM on January 17, 2001

Heh, Pacific Heights here and we haven't seen any blackouts yet. Last week the lights were turning on and off for a few seconds, but my PC stayed on through it. Maybe I should turn some lights off and help my citymates out. :)
posted by swank6 at 4:10 PM on January 17, 2001

If California is anything like the DC area, hospitals shouldn't have to worry. In 1996 we had some really bad ice storms and everyone was asked to power down as much as possible until everything was up and running again. We had to turn out all our lights and keep the house at under 62 degrees. But the hospitals had their own mini-grids, so any rolling outages wouldn't affect them.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:18 PM on January 17, 2001

Maybe you should, swank6 -- it isn't dark yet, right?
posted by redfoxtail at 4:19 PM on January 17, 2001

I believe that the rolling blackouts are focused on residential areas. Hospitals are excluded from the blackouts - my fiance' works in a hospital and the power there didn't go out when some friends of ours near the hospital were experiencing a blackout at home.
posted by thunder at 4:25 PM on January 17, 2001

megnut, you shouldn't have to worry about not getting home. One of the nice things about San Francisco is that it's pretty walkable (I've walked all over the city, myself). Plus there are taxis and gas-powered buses available.

I hear ya about the apprehension of possibly no heat for the home, though. I worry about that, too.
posted by doublehelix at 4:46 PM on January 17, 2001

Here is a good article about the problems and who's to blame. Apperantly it's the internet, i knew it was evil

Does this mean that future blackouts can be averted by blocking downloads from porn sites during peak demand hours?
posted by MrBaliHai at 4:51 PM on January 17, 2001

All should read part one of this thread from last week. Get the backstory!
posted by aaron at 5:09 PM on January 17, 2001

It's 2001, and I may not have power or heat at my house when I get home.

Not unlike X* percent of the world.

* Let X be a high, high number, but a number I am too lazy to find. Plus, I have to hurry home to watch "The Simpsons."

posted by luke at 5:13 PM on January 17, 2001

The San Diego Union Tribune reports that it's going to get worse. The shortfall today was 9 gigawatts. Tomorrow it's supposed to be twice that.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:44 PM on January 17, 2001

Milwaukee had rolling brownouts a few summers ago. The Journal had an agreement with Wepco to start conserving early... I was astonished at how many lights were off -- and what a minimal difference it made. Why light a hallway that has a window? Duh. Why does Macy's turn on all the lights hours before the store is open? Reasons for the power shortages may be many, but it's amazing how little real and very simple conservation occurs. Watch for everything to go completely back to normal when the juice is "cheap" again.
posted by mimi at 9:11 PM on January 17, 2001

Gov. Gray Davis has declared a state of emergency. This will allow him to order that already-budgeted money tbe diverted to buy the power that the utilities no longer have the money to purchase. He expects the state to have to pay for 7-10 days' worth of juice.

Four leading power generating companies have agreed to not move to force PG&E and Edison into bankruptcy tomorrow, as long as the legislature agrees to Davis's proposal tomorrow morning. Otherwise, they'll move to force bankruptcy at 12:01 pm.

And regarding Energy Secretary Richardson's continual emergency orders forcing out-of-state providers to ship power to California that they may never get paid for:

"Can Secretary Richardson guarantee that these people are going to get paid?" Jesus Arredondo, spokesman for the California Power Exchange, the agency that serves as the trading exchange for the state, told Los Angeles television station KNBC. "If I'm a supplier and I'm not sure I am going to get paid, I don't know there probably isn't any court in the nation that is going to force me to sell power."
posted by aaron at 10:34 PM on January 17, 2001

Now I'm really confused. Don't the power companies have to supply power? Isn't it like, say, the water utilities? This isn't a natural defecit, after all. There's power to be had.

I just don't get public utilities at all.
posted by solistrato at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2001

Solistrato, PG&E has largely exited the power generation business in favor of what was thought to be a more profitable power transmission business; they're buying power from independent companies who, by and large, aren't contractually obligated to sell it to them. (And why should they be, if they don't think they'll get paid?) And, for that matter, "public utilities" has a specific meaning -- those that are owned by the government.

However, I think Aaron is slightly off about how the California deregulation worked. The reason PG&E and Edison International can't raise rates is that they're forbidden to under state law. Why are these companiess forbidden to raise rates while San Diego G&E is not? (And SDG&E has certainly taken advantage of this, with rates rocketing in the last year.)

When deregulation passed, more than $25 billion in state bonds were issued to defray the utilities' "stranded asset" costs; almost half of this amount was tied to two money-losing nuclear power plants. Utilities that accepted this money were barred from raising rates until 2002 or they paid back the bonds. SDG&E sold two generation plants, paid back its share of the bonds, and is now free to raise rates without getting it cleared by the Public Utility Commission.

PG&E and Edison haven't paid back their share yet, so they can't raise rates. This is a problem for them. But they knew this going in -- see PG&E's explanation of the revised utility bill. The deregulation bill was widely criticized by Public Citizen and other usual suspects as being anti-consumer because of the stranded cost recovery provisions -- let me repeat that it was north of $25 billion dollars -- but conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation was also criticicizing this portion of deregulation as wasteful and anti-competitive back in 1997; this economics paper notes, "Indeed as most proponents of stranded cost recovery indicate, the main issue is equity and morality, not economics and efficiency. Some analysts have tried to make stranded costs into an economic issue, but as we demonstrate below, their arguments do not bear close scrutiny."

It strikes me as disingenuous for PG&E to start complaining now that it's apparent that their gamble of backing the 1996 bill with stranded cost recovery didn't work. Aaron, if anything in my understand of the issues contradicts what you know, please post it -- I don't live in California any more, so I'm hardly on top of these issues, but even your boys at Reason agree, in one of the links you posted, that this mess is at least partially of the utilities' own makin.
posted by snarkout at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2001

My apologies for the myriad typos; I didn't proofread very closely.
posted by snarkout at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2001

Disingenuous or not, if the legislature doesn't do something within about the next 45 minutes, PG&E and SoCal will be forced into bankrupcy. They owe a lot of money to out-of-state power producers, who basically gave a deadline of 12:01 PM today for the legislature to act. If they aren't satisfied by then, the power producers will call in their debts, which will force both PG&E and SoCal into bankrupcy.

You can bitch about it all you want, but if PG&E and SoCal implode, a lot more than just them will be hurt. I believe it's referred to as "cutting off your nose to spite your face".

And the damage won't be confined to California.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:17 AM on January 18, 2001

"We're currently closed due to the electricity blackouts. We apologise for any inconvenience. Please try at a later time." - Kozmo SF. Damn, I'll have to drag my lazy ass out of the house now.
posted by heather at 11:21 AM on January 18, 2001

Steven, if they go bankrupt, it's going to screw a lot of people -- but going bankrupt doesn't mean that California will immediately go dark. Bankruptcy means that you're seeking court protection from your creditors, not that the company's going to immediately shut down all operations.

And yes, if the aftereffects of the bankruptcy of Edison International and PG&E is going to cause a serious threat to the safety of Californians (which it will if AES and Calpine and the like stop selling them electricity), the Legislature should do something about it -- I'm just not sure what on earth the politicians are going to do. Neither allowing California to suffer blackouts nor allowing electric bills to quadruple is going to play well with constituents. Some sort of guarantee to the power producers that they'll get their money even if and when the utilities go bankrupt is probably required if the PUC doesn't let the rate increase through (and I'm not at all sure that they should, but I live on the East Coast, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt).
posted by snarkout at 1:36 PM on January 18, 2001

Snark, essentially what Gov. Davis is trying to get through is a bill which gives the State of California the right to buy power from producers outside the state, and to resell it inside the state at a tiny markup to pay for administrative costs. What it really means is that the State is guaranteeing payment to the producers, because if the distributors can't pay it will be the State who loses the money. That was what the producers wanted. As I write this it's 2 hours past the deadline and I can't find a news source which updates enough to tell me if they pulled it off. I guess we'll know by tonight. Maybe I'll see if I can fine a website for a newspaper in Sacremento.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2001

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