What has been bizarre behavior for more than a month turned intooutright insanity Thursday as California’s electricity gridoperator declared a Stage Three power alert and narrowly avertedrolling blackouts for firm customers. State officials had expectedto have to curtail up to 2,000 MW between 5-8 p.m., centered mostlyin northern California. An unprecedented one-third (15,000 MW) ofthe capacity usually available was out of service.

A stepped-up conservation effort late in the day, along withadded supplies obtained through the state’s water resourcesdepartment saved situation. A significant amount of additionalinterruptions to large commercial/industrial customers boosted theconservation totals. Earlier the state pushed for an aggressivedemand-side management effort that would provide a 5% reduction inpower demand, and filed its proposal with the federal EnergyDepartment.

Gov. Gray Davis at mid-day announced that he would be hosting ameeting today in Sacramento with the governors of Oregon andWashington, John Kitzhaber and Gary Locke, respectively, to detailplans to manage the regional western energy problems.

The prospect is for more Stage Three alerts possibly through theweekend, according to Kellan Fluckiger, COO of the CaliforniaIndependent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the state-charterednonprofit operating the private sector’s portion of the state’selectricity grid.

The reality of facing rolling blackouts caused aCalifornia-based creator of e-commerce data centers and web sitehosting to warn that “hundred of million of dollars inmanufacturing, stock trades, bank transactions and online purchaseswould be lost in a 15-minute outage.” In planned, or rolling,blackouts typically the power curtailment for firm customers lastsup to an hour, Fluckiger said.

“Many high-tech businesses that have rushed to market in thelast two years have hastily designed and poorly maintainedfacilities with unreliable back-up systems in place to deal with apower outage,” said Dan McNary, a spokesperson with Syska &Hennessy’s OnLine Environments, in Santa Monica.

An emergency order from DOE Secretary Bill Richardson lapsed atmidnight Wednesday, but Gov. Gray Davis later in the day Thursdayannounced a week’s extension until midnight Jan.17. The order isnot contributing as much as in earlier weeks, since the $64 cap wasimposed on the emergency power, Fluckiger said. (A Cal-ISO sourcesaid the grid operator two days earlier asked DOE for action, butit was withheld until the eleventh hour and then announced by thegovernor. No one informed Cal-ISO of the extension immediatelyafter it was granted.)

Meanwhile, a new series of storms this week has brought highwave conditions all along the California coast where the bulk ofthe state’s power plants are located, causing units totaling about2,000 MW to be taken out of service early Thursday morning,according to Fluckiger. The sea swell issue is particularly onerousat Pacific Gas and Electric’ Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant along thecentral coast near Avila Beach.

One of Duke Energy’s units at Moss Landing about 100 miles northalong the coast from the Diablo Canyon plant lost a second unittotaling 750 MW due to mechanical — not weather, or sea swell —problems. It is expected to be back online by this weekend,according to a California-based Duke spokesperson. Another unit atMoss (Unit 6) was already down for $25 million of plannedmaintenance to install emissions control equipment required underincreasingly stringent state air quality standards.

Under questioning from news media in the face of the prospect ofrolling blackouts, Fluckiger said Cal-ISO is keeping Davis apprisedof the situation, and in response to a separate set of questions,that he does not think any generators are intentionally withholdingsupplies from the grid. “Sea swells” have always been a factor inthe operations of coastal-situated power plants, but they usuallyare not part of an ongoing, front-page story about electricity thathas gripped California since early December.

After suspending them since the holidays, the Cal-ISO Thursdayresumed its three-times-a-day news media briefings. Stage Threealerts are called when the grid operator determines that itsreserves of power are going to dip below 1.5%. In the morning surgeof power use Thursday, they dipped as low as 1.9%, Fluckiger said.

An already tight situation with more than 12,000 MW off forplanned or unplanned maintenance Wednesday got worse, Fluckigersaid, when another 1,600 MW were unexpectedly lost overnight goinginto Thursday when peak demand was forecast to be 33,488 MW.

California officials and industry stakeholders are hoping that ameaningful solution to the short-term utility financial crunch willcome out of meeting this weekend in Washington, DC, between Gov.Davis and Clinton Administration cabinet members.

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