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California's Rotating Power Outages
Blackouts Around the Golden State

by Matt T. Rosenberg
March 20, 2001

I'm on the front line of California's power problem. In January and again this week, rotating power outages have affected the state where I live. Beginning Monday, March 19, higher-than-normal temperatures, a transformer fire, and an unwillingness of power suppliers to keep giving power company PG&E power when the company isn't paying for the power resulted in the first statewide mandatory outages. For the first time, Southern California was also included. (In January only the northern and central parts of the state were forced to turn off the lights.) Now, it's hitting everyone and it's grown beyond citizens slowly responding to the call to conserve energy and retail establishments being forced to cut their power usage (especially shopping malls and auto dealers).

People inside and outside of the state wonder how such problems (reminiscent of less-developed countries) could happen in the Golden State, the home of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Well, it's complicated. However, it mostly results from geography - the state's population and businesses (especially power-draining high-tech industries) have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade while no new power generation plants have been built in the state over the past decade.

Additionally, power can't be stored up and used at a later time. Supply must equal or exceed demand at the very instant that the demand is there. Due to our lack of power generation facilities, California is obtaining power from across the Western United States and less-than-adequate rainfall in the Pacific Northwest has resulted in less power being available from the hydroelectric plants of the Northwest. Peak demand in California exists between about 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. in the evening.

Yesterday, at about 11 a.m., the California Independent System Operator realized that the state did not have electricity reserves of 1.5% or greater so a Stage 3 alert was issued and shortly thereafter, the state's utilities were ordered to start turning off power in order to conserve electricity. Each utility has its own method to shut off power on its grid. Fortunately, I live in the territory of PG&E so I have a fairly good indication of when my power is going to be turned off.

Rotating outages last for one hour to 90 minutes. PG&E assigns each of their customers into a "Rotating Outage Block." The number of their block is listed on each month's bill. I'm in Block 14. In January, PG&E began shutting off power in Block 2. They shut off power to each block sequentially. Through January they made it through about Block 8 or so. Therefore, when power was ordered off yesterday, they began with Block 9. I expected Block 14 to be hit around 6 p.m. last night but the crisis ended early and power was shut off through Block 11. Today, outages began around 9:30 a.m. and PG&E began with Block 12. Two to three hours later, my power will be off, unless enough energy can be found. My number is almost up!

Essential facilities such as fire stations and hospitals are supposedly assigned Block 50 and are immune to the rotating outages unless the emergency is great enough that shutting off Block 50 is required. However, some fire stations and essential facilities are just part of the normal circuit and their power has been turned off as well. Two communities near my home lost power at their town's only fire station yesterday and today.

No one but PG&E knows who's in which block and they don't announce the areas that will be affected by an outage due to concerns that criminals may target an area where alarms are off and lights are out. Once the outage occurs, the media rushes to report the areas affected.

Other power companies in the state keep their outages a secret as well but their systems aren't quite as customer-friendly as PG&E's. While PG&E is the major power company for Northern and Central California, Southern California Edison serves much of Southern California. Their policy is to turn off individual groups within circuits that serve 800 to 2,000 homes at a time so residents there don't know when their power might be out.

When the power goes out, so do the signal lights at intersections. Many Californians are poor drivers; when the power goes out, they're even worse. Local television stations were hovering in helicopters over intersections where the signal lights were off due to the outages and showing confused drivers trying to navigate huge intersections as through they were stop signs. Many just slowed down at the intersections and did not stop. It was quite chaotic. 911 call centers across the state received hundreds (if not thousands) of calls from confused citizens reporting to authorities that power was out and asking when service would be restored.

I've decided that I certainly won't venture onto the roads during my outage and I have my flashlights ready. For all you Californians out there, remember not to use candles during a blackout (they're a major fire danger and should be avoided at all costs.) Learn more about appropriate emergency preparedness before your next power outage.

Discuss the California power crisis on the Geography Forum

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