California Braces for Summer Blackoutsgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Unk's Wild Wild West : One Thread
Sunday May 27 1:25 PM ET
Calif. Braces for Summer Blackouts
By GARY GENTILE, Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - While most people celebrate Memorial Day, Jan and Ralph Vazquez will celebrate their own independence day - energy independence.
Worried about a summer of rolling blackouts and fed up with rising utility bills, the couple installed a $33,000 solar system in their four-bedroom home in San Rafael a few weeks ago. It can store enough energy in batteries to power their refrigerator and other appliances for up to six hours if there is a blackout.
``I think there is a little bit of fear and concern about to what extent would we be subject to blackouts and how much energy is going to cost us,'' Jan Vazquez said. ``The simple solution is to be independent, or as much so as possible.''
The Vazquezes are among millions of Californians facing an uncertain summer, wondering how they will cope with what is expected to be several months of rolling blackouts.
The prospect of daily power outages as the temperature rises and air conditioning use peaks has left many people apprehensive, from parents of newborns who need warm bottles to people who require electric-powered medical devices in their homes to office workers worried about getting stuck in an elevator.
California already has endured six days of rolling blackouts this year, each lasting about an hour and hitting different parts of the state. Estimates vary about what lies ahead.
One industry-sponsored watchdog group, the North American Electric Reliability Council, predicted California would face an average of 20 hours a week of rolling blackouts.
Responding to complaints following the earlier outages, state power officials this month plan to begin issuing weather advisory-style warnings 24 hours before an expected blackout.
Chicago, faced with a deteriorated electrical system after years of neglect and severe weather, adopted a blackout plan in 1999 that is being studied as a model by California officials.
Today, for example, Chicago police officers carry portable stop signs to darkened intersections moments after a blackout hits.
``There's no just excuse for trapping people in elevators,'' said Bill Abolt, Chicago's commissioner of environment. ``There's no excuse for shutting off power to an intersection with no notification to police and fire in advance.''
Across the country, reduced hydroelectric production due to the Pacific Northwest drought, an aging transmission system, rising costs for the natural gas that fires many power plants and increasing demand for electricity is expected to produce shortages and higher prices in the Northwest, New England and other regions.
The stakes are high in California. It has the world's sixth largest economy and is home to bellwether high tech companies such as Intel and Cisco Systems.
For some retailers, the impact is minimal. Clerks can switch from an electric-powered cash register to battery-powered calculators. Some companies can fire portable generators to power their phone system with minimal disruption.
The California Manufacturing and Technology Association recently estimated a summer of blackouts could cost the state $21 billion and 136,000 jobs as manufacturers curtail production and retail stores suffer a slowdown.
The Bay Area Economic Forum has estimated that rolling blackouts could cost as much as $15 billion and 15,000 jobs.
A summer of rolling blackouts also will test the emotional mettle of Californians, who normally rally when faced with such natural disasters as earthquakes and wildfires.
``It's going to be an interesting natural experiment,'' said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Davidson professor of management at Claremont Graduate University.
``When there is a natural calamity, people often respond really positively. This is different in the sense it is not a natural calamity and you can blame politicians and gougers for it. It could turn into resentment against those in power and those who should be supplying the power.''
California's plight already has become comic fodder.
From David Letterman to radio talk shows, the state has been the butt of power-related jokes. On a recent episode of the game show ``The Weakest Link,'' which is taped in Los Angeles, the acerbic host asked which player was having a ``rolling mental blackout.''
Jan Vazquez, however, suggests that California has the chance to go from punch line to role model.
``California has the opportunity to be a leader again,'' Vazquez said, urging more state investment in alternative energy rather than sinking billions more into buying power at inflated prices.
``If there were more homeowners like us and more businesses that were generating their own electrical power, I think we would avoid blackouts completely - maybe not by this summer, but by next summer,'' she said.
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