Unfounded blackouts better than being in the dark

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Unfounded blackout forecast better than being in the dark

Eric Brazil, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, June 19, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/06/19/MN233744.DTL&type=news

For the second straight day, the rolling blackouts forecast by the California Independent System Operator did not materialize. "We're looking pretty good today," said Lisa Szot, spokeswoman for the ISO, which manages and monitors California's power grid.

Forecasting power shortages severe enough to trigger blackouts is an imprecise endeavor, although the ISO, the state's official warning agency, has been ordered by Gov. Gray Davis to issue probability warnings 48 hours in advance nevertheless.

"We don't know, looking 48 hours out, what's going to happen. We make the best call we can based on the data we have," Szot acknowledged. "Probability, that's the whole big thing here. The system is so dynamic that the chance of hitting it on the nose and it happening in reality is very small."

That the ISO's first attempt at forecasting a blackout missed the mark didn't faze Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Manufacturing Group, which has pressed hard for an early warning system.

"This is exactly what we want to see, to prepare for blackouts as well as to prevent blackouts," Guardino said. "Out of the last three blackouts, we had warnings of two minutes, two minutes and six minutes, and that's like standing on the railroad track and someone hollers 'Train!' just before it rolls over you." Now, Guardino said, Californians will "have time to step off the tracks."

Under the governor's directive, the ISO is required to issue three warnings of possible blackouts -- at 48-, 24- and one-hour intervals -- giving customers time to prepare for temporary power shortages.

Guardino acknowledged that there is a cost involved in bracing for blackouts that never materialize, "but the cost of prevention is pennies to dollars. . . . Every blackout we avoid saves $750 million to $800 million. That's not crying wolf, that's crying victory."

E-mail Eric Brazil at ebrazil@sfchronicle.com. 2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 11

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), June 20, 2001

Answers

I don't see how it can be any other way. To be early-warned is to be early-protected. Simple logic, it seems to me.

-- LillyLP (lillyLP@aol.com), June 20, 2001.

Several parameters interact to determine the electrical supply and demand balance, which is what determines whether or not rolling blackouts are necessary to avoid a major cascading blackout.

Each parameter individually is difficult to forecast accurately. Weather, one important parameter, is a well known example. Human decisions, which haven't even been made yet at forecast time, are even harder to predict. Will people conserve to avoid blackouts? Or will people react by (selfishly or justifiably) "cranking up" the A/C, so the blackout wil at least start out cooler? Will these reactions change as blackouts recur over the course of the summer? The behavior of power traders and generators is even harder to predict yet. Their motives and methods are difficult to discern, (i.e., findings of fact regarding collusion, manipulation, anti- trust, profiteering, etc.); even from investigations of PAST behavior, where there is a clear record.

Blackout forecasts, thus must be expected to be much less reliable than weather forecasts. In other words, the longer term forecasts (or the lack thereof) are almost useless. The one hour warnings may be of value, though even these won't always be correct. And it is likely that at least some blackouts will continue to occur with little or no warning, due to sudden unforeseeable malfunctions and breakdowns. So, prepare accordingly.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), June 20, 2001.


Don't envy the folks trying to predict. Those are going to be rather subjective probabilities, not based on any hard data. And, don't forget the "Boy who cried wolfe affect". How are people going to react after a couple false alarms?

-- Warren Ketler (wrkttl@earthlink.net), June 21, 2001.

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