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Power Alert Remains in California

Tuesday March 20

A power alert remained in effect Tuesday, a day after California's first rolling blackouts in more than two months, but energy officials hoped cooler temperatures and the availability of additional power would help prevent more outages. The blackouts struck statewide Monday without warning, coming in two waves that left more than 1.2 million customers in the dark from San Diego to Sacramento.

It was a shock for Southern California, since the two previous blackouts, Jan. 17 and 18, affected only the northern and central parts of the state. ``All Californians are going to realize this is a statewide problem,'' said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator  which oversees most of the state's power grid.

A Stage 3 alert, the highest level of emergency, was downgraded late Monday to a Stage 2, which was extended into Tuesday morning. Intersections in Sacramento were jammed Monday as signal lights went dark. It was quite sudden, with no warning or nothing, Monday's shortages were blamed on a transformer fire and a lack of power from idled plants and out-of-state suppliers. At the same time, demand went up as unseasonably high temperatures - 87 degrees in downtown Los Angeles - prompted people to turn on their air conditioners. Power grid operators responded by ordering an initial round of blackouts that lasted from noon to 4 p.m., unplugging customers for about an hour at a time. A second wave started around 6 p.m. and lasted through 7:15 p.m.

But California's power woes are far from over. Natural gas supplies are tight, water supplies are down and even higher temps could drive up demand.  Adding to the aggravation, the state has lost about 3,100 megawatts of power from plants that use excess heat and steam from industrial sites to create power. A thousand megawatts is about enough to power 1 million homes.

The plants say they can't afford to buy natural gas to operate until they're paid about $1 billion for past sales to the state's two largest utilities - Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison SoCal Edison and PG&E say they have lost $13 billion since last year because wholesale electricity prices have soared and the state's 1996 deregulation law prevents the utilities from passing the costs on to ratepayers.

With the power crunch showing no signs of abating, Gov. Gray Davis told lawmakers Monday he will need another $500 million within 10 days for short-term power buys, bringing the state's total power spending to $4.2 billion. The state stepped in to buy power for SoCal Edison and PG&E in January, when the effects of deregulation caused the two utilities' credit to be severely downgraded. It is spending close to $50 million a day.


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