the grid keepers
brian carroll <email@example.com>
Wed, 20 Jun 2001 11:00:56 -0800
Wednesday, June 20, 2001 | (fair use)
Blackout Forecasts' Dark Side
* If optimists are wrong and the power runs out, California's energy
crisis could quickly cost lives and cripple the economy.
By JENIFER WARREN, Times Staff Writer
It's here. Summer 2001, the blackout season, is only a day away.
Already Californians anticipate power outages when temperatures
rise. By August, the occasional annoyances endured so far--stoplights
gone dark, computers, air conditioners and elevators idled--could
seem almost quaint.
Gov. Gray Davis insists we needn't worry. Four large new power
plants are firing up soon, he said, and government's best and
brightest are locking up still more megawatts to help meet our peak
summer need. Californians, Davis predicts, will valiantly heed his
call to conserve, helping the state survive the hot months, no sweat.
With luck, he'll be right. Power prices have stabilized, and some
energy analysts are wondering whether California may have tamed the
But what if those plants don't get built in time, people don't
trim their electricity use 7% and energy imports are more meager than
And what if the state gets hit by a summer that is not
moderately hot, as Davis bets, but blistering, record-setting hot?
Government experts who ponder such questions don't expect
disaster in the coming months. But they are planning for it
At best, they say, Californians can expect some gridlocked
intersections, an occasionally overloaded 911 system, perhaps some
business bankruptcies, certainly inconvenience. At worst, the Western
power grid could crash, causing uncontrolled blackouts that might
lead to looting, contaminated water supplies, even civil unrest.
"How bad could this summer get?" said state Sen. Joe Dunn
(D-Santa Ana). "This summer could be the worst disaster to ever hit
the state of California."
Imagine it's a Thursday morning in the third week of July.
Relentless heat grips California, the curse of a stubborn
high-pressure ridge that just won't budge.
As air conditioners from Redding to Chula Vista lumber to life,
managers of the state's power grid in Folsom gulp their third and
fourth cups of coffee, stare at a bank of computers and begin to fret.
Demand is jumping. Supply is static, Canada and Arizona have
nothing to sell. It's looking tight.
Thirty minutes later, the picture is gloomier. A brush fire
shuts down transmission lines near Fresno, squeezing supply in the
Central Valley. In the Bay Area, the unusual heat drives demand well
By noon things look bleak. Operators of the Diablo Canyon
nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo have cut output by 80%. The
trouble? Chunks of kelp have lodged in one of the plant's seawater
intake valves, creating a clog like one that plagued the facility in
With a chorus of groans, the grid's keepers scour the market for
power to offset the Diablo loss. No luck. As the mercury climbs and
the Golden State economy roars into full swing, electricity
consumption ticks upward, minute by minute. And when managers of a
power plant near Long Beach cut output because of a cracked turbine,
everyone knows what it means.
Alert the utilities. It's lights out, California, for the fourth
day in a row.
Dr. J. Michael Leary dreads blackouts--not personally, but
professionally. Leary is an emergency room physician in the desert
city of Rancho Mirage. When air conditioners go on the blink there,
the victims--scores of them, mostly old folks--wind up in his ER.
In a normal year, 75% of his emergency patients are geriatrics.
Like infants, the elderly are unusually vulnerable to the heat. When
blackouts hit, they are most at risk.
"It's as if you lived in Maine and they turned the heat off in
January," Leary said. "This is an extreme environment we live in. The
effects can be devastating."
Many desert seniors are on fixed incomes and live in mobile
homes, some of them poorly insulated boxes that turn into ovens under
the brutal summer sun. Take away the air conditioning and the humans
inside start baking, quick.
For Leary, the specter of continual, back-to-back blackouts in
July--and, some predict, in June and August too--conjures images of
an 82-year-old man, living alone in one of those mobile homes, taking
medication for heart disease. The cardiovascular drugs plague the man
with numerous side effects; one inhibits his body's ability to cool
When a person gets overheated, body temperature eventually rises
uncontrollably. Then comes a nasty spiral of effects, and pretty soon
"you go into shock," Leary said. "Everything just shuts down."
On average each year, 371 Americans die from heat-related
causes, more than the number killed by earthquakes, tornadoes,
hurricanes, lightning and floods combined. In 1995, a record hot
spell in Chicago killed 465 people. Eleven Californians died from the
heat in 1998.
A new report by the United Seniors Assn. predicts that more than
half a million elderly Californians could need hospitalization for
heat-related ailments this summer.
Some communities have laid plans for cooling shelters, wading
pools and other measures to provide relief. But will all who need
help get it? Or get it in time?
Out in the desert, paramedics expect a crush of 911 calls when
the power goes out and the ill, frail and frightened seek help. Leary
and others at Eisenhower Medical Center will be waiting, armed with
ice packs, cooled IVs and ventilators.
"I am very, very worried," the doctor said. "I think we'll see a
great toll in human suffering, even mortality."
California's tomato processors are no less anxious. They wash,
cook, peel, chop, mash and can about 1 million tons of tomatoes a
week from July to October--enough to account for half the world's
supply. For them, a string of unexpected power losses could mean
economic ruin in a matter of days.
The reason lies in the peculiar nature of food processing--a
sterile system instantly contaminated if the power fails and the
plant's precise temperature is disturbed.
Once a batch of tomatoes is tainted, it must be thrown out--all
50,000 pounds. The plant must then be sanitized, a painstaking
process that takes about 36 hours.
"If you get hit by blackouts every third day for, say, two
weeks, you're starting, stopping, cleaning, restarting--it's a
nightmare," said Jeff Boese, president of the California League of
Food Processors. "You could lose three batches and be out $40 million
before you knew what hit you."
Meanwhile, farmers with still more truckloads of tomatoes line
up outside the plant, waiting to be paid for their crop: "If we can't
process them, the farmers have spent an entire season growing them
for nothing," Boese said.
In Sonoma County, the object in peril is the chicken. Egg
producers equip their laying houses with fans and swamp coolers to
keep the hens comfortable. Power is also needed to run giant
refrigerators filled with eggs.
"In a blackout, those hens can overheat in no time," said Rich
Matteis of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Assn. "In 20 or 30 minutes,
you could have 100,000 birds die."
Many large producers have backup generators, but they are not
designed for ongoing, intensive use. Will they hold up? Small-scale
egg producers often have no backup power at all.
Hundreds of other California businesses could suffer if summer
shapes up as bad as some predict.
The Valero Refining Co. of California, northeast of San
Francisco, produces 115,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Because
restarting a refinery is a complicated task, two or three blackouts
close together could prompt officials to shutter it until electricity
supplies stabilize--costing California about 10% of its gasoline
At a Berkeley medical laboratory, doctors say power losses to
their freezers could destroy bone marrow needed to give young
leukemia patients lifesaving transplants. The state's 400 dialysis
centers, where patients without kidney function go to have their
blood cleansed every other day, are in the same fix. Few have backup
generators, so when an outage hits, technicians must crank the
machines by hand.
Most Californians, of course, face far more ordinary
consequences. The scoreboards will fizzle at summer softball games,
joggers on treadmills will be stopped in their tracks, electric
organs will go silent, leaving choirs to sing without accompaniment.
Parents will be asked to retrieve children from day-care centers
when the lights and cooling systems conk out. Anniversary lunches may
be ruined when restaurants cannot grill salmon or blend margaritas.
Most people will tolerate occasional disturbances, psychologists
say, doing their part in a time of crisis. But what if such
irritations become an everyday fact of life?
Hundreds of "essential" energy users--including prisons, fire
departments and airports--are protected from blackouts, and hundreds
more have applied for exemptions. That means the pool of people
bearing the blackout burden is shrinking, so more frequent outages
Blackout predictions vary widely, but at least one forecaster, a
consultant for California water districts, anticipates an outage
almost every afternoon of every workday this summer if temperatures
are unusually warm.
Californians are accustomed to trash compactors, giant-screen
TVs and having the Internet at their fingertips. How much deprivation
will they tolerate?
"So far, the version of blackouts we've experienced hasn't
looked too scary to people--it happens on a workday, in the
afternoon, and you basically have to come home and reset your VCR,"
said Dan Kammen, a professor of energy and society at UC Berkeley.
But if outages become daily events, and start to invade the
evening hours, the public mood could change abruptly.
"When there's a disaster or crisis or trauma, people tend to act
heroically and work together," said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles
psychologist and trauma specialist. "But the civilized behavior only
lasts a short period. Then people start acting in unpredictable ways."
That tendency may be exacerbated, Butterworth said, by the
nature of the energy crisis--not a natural disaster, but a man-made
"People start to look for a scapegoat," he said. "People will
look for a target, and there's a tendency to strike out at whoever is
closest to you."
One place that tendency may surface, Butterworth said, is on
traffic-clogged roads. Blackouts already have led to scores of
accidents. Add summer heat to the mix, and repeat the pattern day
after day at rush hour, and motorists' patience could wear thin, law
enforcement officials say.
"We're bracing for . . . possible acts of violence and road
rage," said Sacramento County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Saunders.
Lon House is the water consultant who predicts California could
see blackouts almost every summer weekday. Among the worries for the
440 water agencies he represents: losing the ability to pump water
during wildfire season.
"I'm telling them to be ready for a major earthquake every day
this summer--meaning all your power is out throughout your district
for multiple hours," House said.
House insists he isn't an alarmist. But on top of the fire
fears, he warns that blackouts of more than a few hours would allow
air into water pipes, contaminating supplies. If that happens,
Californians would be urged to boil their water until the system can
be disinfected from one end of the pipe to the other.
Though rolling blackouts are risky, they remain essentially a
controlled phenomenon, occurring when and where the grid managers and
utilities decide. Far more frightening--and devastating--are
unexpected, cascading outages that could shut down the entire Western
power grid. It happened in August 1996, leaving 4 million people
without power during a triple-digit heat wave.
The problem began when power lines in Oregon sagged into trees
and shut themselves off. That triggered a chain reaction of automatic
switch-offs and oscillating surges of energy that ultimately shut
down all four of the main power arteries between California and the
That robbed the system of thousands of megawatts--enough to
power four cities the size of Seattle for four days--and scattered
outages across California and six other Western states. Thousands of
customers were without power for more than a day.
Though such an episode is rare, California grid managers say it
is more likely today because the system is taxed by the
ever-increasing load of electricity it bears.
"The system is very dynamic, and when it's heavily loaded and
highly stressed, like it is now, the smallest little thing could
cause big trouble," said Kevin Bakker, who oversees California's
connection to the greater Western power grid.
If a massive, uncontrolled outage should hit, the ramifications
could be dizzying, said Mike Guerin, chief of law enforcement for the
state Office of Emergency Services. Police departments would probably
go to tactical alert, guarding against looting by criminals who might
take advantage of disabled alarm systems and darkened street lights.
In hot areas, cities might convert municipal buses--parked with
air conditioners running--into cooling shelters, Guerin said. The
state would provide emergency generators to nursing homes and others
in need, while the California National Guard might be called into
"With this kind of blackout scenario, you're not worried about
the bologna going bad in the refrigerator," Guerin said. "We're
talking about doctors doing surgeries on backup generators for three
days. We're talking about a lot of things we don't like to think
* * *
Times staff writers Nancy Vogel and Alexander Gronke and
researcher Patti Williams contributed to this story.
* * *
Heat-Related Deaths in the U.S.
371 Average number of heat-related deaths annually
* * *
1,700 Most heat-related deaths in a single year (1980)
* * *
465 Number of people in the Chicago area who died during a July
* * *
11 Number of Californians who died of heat-related causes in summer 1998.
* * *
62% Percentage of heat-related fatalities 55 and older
* * *
Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United
* * *
Large Power Plants Coming Online This Summer
Plant Megawatts Online
Sutter Power Project 500 Aug. 1
Los Medanos Energy Center 500 July 1
Sunrise Power Project 320 Aug. 1
Huntington Beach Power Station 450 Aug. 1
* * *
Another 827 megawatts of power are expected to be available by
Sept. 30 from 10 smaller "peaker" plants, designed to run at times of
peak demand, usually late afternoon.
* * *
Note: One megawatt is enough to serve between 750 and 1,000 homes.
Source: California Energy Commission
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