California will forecast blackouts and warn the public |

California will forecast blackouts and warn the public

SACRAMENTO (AP) – Californians will soon be waking up to the weather, the traffic – and a blackout forecast.

The operator of the state’s electricity grid said Monday it will start issuing forecasts 24 hours ahead of expected rolling blackouts.

The agency also promised to give 30 minutes’ warning before it orders utilities to pull the plug on homes and businesses, a move that could prevent traffic accidents, stuck elevators and costly shutdowns at factories.

Up to now, the agency has refused to give more than a few minutes’ warning, saying it did not want to alarm people when there was still a chance that a last-minute purchase of power could stave off blackouts. The utilities have also resisted giving warnings, saying they did not want to tip off burglars and other criminals.

”People are asking for additional notice, so we’re doing our best to make that a reality,” said Lorie O’Donley, a spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator.

Californians have been warned that rolling blackouts could be a regular feature this summer. The state’s power system, crippled by a botched effort at deregulation, has been unable to produce or buy enough electricity to power air conditioners on hot days.

The rolling blackouts move from neighborhood to neighborhood in a sequence that is determined by the utilities and is difficult or impossible for the public to predict. The outages last 60 to 90 minutes and then skip to another neighborhood.

Because of the lack of notice, the six days of rolling blackouts to hit the state so far this year have led to pileups at intersections suddenly left without stoplights, people trapped in elevators, and losses caused by stopped production lines. People with home medical equipment like oxygen fret they that they will be cut off without warning.

The new plan by the ISO borrows from the language of weather forecasters: Beginning May 30, it will issue a ”power watch” or ”power warning” that will give notice the grid could be headed toward blackouts.

The ISO will issue a 30-minute warning to the media and others before any blackouts actually begin. However, the ISO will not say what neighborhoods will be hit.

”Any time is better than none,” said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association. ”Obviously, we’d like more, but we’re realistic about what they can do.”

Assemblyman Fred Keeley, the Legislature’s point man on energy, acknowledged that scheduling blackouts could attract criminals and open the state to legal liability for accidents at blacked-out intersections.

”That is a genuine problem and genuine concern,” Keeley said earlier. ”I think we would have to work with local governments so they could have a sufficient advance notice to be able to foresee that and try to deploy their resources appropriately.”

The ISO said it also is looking into high-tech ways it can get word of an impending blackout quickly to homeowners and businesses through mass e-mails, faxes, automated phone calls and pager messages.

The plan falls far short of what some consumer groups and legislators are demanding.

State Sen. Debra Bowen has said she envisions giving consumers three to five days’ notice that their power will be cut during a particular period, so businesses could shut down or shift their operations to non-peak hours such as nights and weekends.

State Assemblyman Mike Briggs said he plans to introduce a bill that would have the Public Utilities Commission notify businesses and homeowners as much as one month ahead of time when they would have their power cut.

”We owe the people of this state some kind of schedule,” Briggs said. ”If businesses and individuals knew what days their power could potentially be shut off or blacked out, they could plan for that blackout accordingly.”

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