Unpaid power bills lead to blackouts | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Unpaid power bills lead to blackouts


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Rolling blackouts hit California for a second straight day Tuesday, closing souvenir shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, snarling traffic and plunging schools and offices around the state into darkness.

Roughly a half-million homes and businesses from San Diego to the Oregon border faced outages, blamed on the same factors that collided to force blackouts Monday.

Those include unseasonably warm weather, reduced electricity imports from the Pacific Northwest, numerous power plants offline for repairs and less power provided by cash-strapped alternative-energy plants.

Gov. Gray Davis blamed the blackouts in part on the failure of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to pay millions of dollars they owe ”qualifying facilities,” power suppliers that use cogeneration – steam from manufacturing plus natural gas – or solar, wind and other renewable energy to generate electricity.

State power grid officials say California this week has lost about half the electricity QFs normally provide. Several cogeneration plants say they haven’t been paid by Edison and PG&E for weeks and can’t afford to buy natural gas to fuel their plants.

Davis said the utilities are taking in money from customers but still failing to pay the QFs. The state has been spending about $45 million a day since January to buy power for customers of Edison and PG&E, which are so credit-poor that suppliers refuse to sell to them.

”It’s wrong and irresponsible of the utilities to pocket this money and not pay the generators,” Davis said at a Capitol news conference Tuesday evening. ”They’ve acted irresponsibly and immorally and it has to stop.”

Southern California Edison officials said in a written statement that the utility is intent on paying creditors and working with the PUC to pay QFs for future power sales. PG&E representatives were out of the office late Tuesday night and didn’t immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

John Harrison of the Northwest Power Planning Council, a consortium that monitors power use in several Western states, said blackouts on the first day of spring are an ominous sign of what lies ahead this summer.

”We’re in trouble,” he said. ”We will likely be able to meet our needs this summer, but there won’t be much to send to California.”

Tuesday’s outages began at 9:30 a.m. PST and continued in 90-minute waves until about 2 p.m., when the Independent System Operator lifted its blackout order.

Grid officials credited an influx of power from the Glen Canyon hydroelectric plant on the Utah-Arizona border.

The ISO expected to have enough electricity to avoid further outages through at least Wednesday, although the supply remained tight.

The blackouts were blamed for at least one serious traffic accident.

Two cars collided at an intersection without traffic lights in the Los Angeles suburb of South El Monte, leaving two people with serious injuries, California Highway Patrol Officer Nick Vite said.

Ventura Foods in Industry sent its employees out for an early lunch after blackouts shut down its phones and computers.

”This is mild weather for this time of year. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the summer,” manager Frank Hynes said. ”This is going to have a serious impact on the state’s economy. They can’t just keep shutting people down.”

Statewide, demand was higher than expected because of warm spring weather. Temperatures reached record highs across California on Monday, including the 80s and low 90s in Southern California. They were expected to be somewhat lower Tuesday but still in the 70s and 80s.

The ISO hoped demand would start to subside and conservation would kick in, but that did not happen Tuesday morning.

”We have not seen the kind of conservation we saw back in January,” when the first blackouts hit, ISO spokesman Patrick Dorinson said. ”If we don’t have conservation efforts, that just means that’s more power we have to take off the grid.”

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, souvenir shops normally bustling with visitors were forced to shut down. Nearby, irritated customers waited for a bank to reopen.

”It’s no good for anybody – stores or businesses or people,” said Yin Sun Chan, among those in line.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility, accounted for most of the customers affected.

At least 438,000 PG&E residential and business customers were affected as of early afternoon, spokesman Ron Low said.

Edison cut power to about 50,000 customers. Edison was ordered to cut less power than PG&E and saved some due to conservation programs, including one that lets the utility shut off air conditioning for 118,500 residential and business customers when the power supply is tight.

About 73,400 San Diego Gas & Electric customers were hit by the blackouts.

Los Angeles, whose municipal utility is not on the grid that serves most of California, wasn’t included in the blackout order.

More than 1 million homes and businesses statewide experienced outages Monday.

California’s power crisis is expected to get even worse this summer, when temperatures soar and residents crank their air conditioning.

Natural gas supplies are tight, water supplies are down and the state is spending tens of millions of dollars each day to buy electricity for Edison and PG&E, who say they are nearly bankrupt due to high wholesale power costs.

Edison and PG&E say they have lost more than $13 billion since last June to climbing wholesale electricity prices the state’s 1996 deregulation law prevents them from recouping from ratepayers.

Adding to the problems, the state this week lost about 3,100 megawatts from QFs. One megawatt is enough power to serve about 750 households.

The plants say they are owed about $1 billion for past sales to PG&E and Edison.

PG&E said it is offering to prepay the QFs starting next month to get them back in operation. Negotiations were expected to continue Wednesday.

California Co-Generation Council attorney Jerry Bloom said he supports proposals that will get the Qfs paid, but the promise of future payments may not be enough.

PG&E and Bloom said the utility’s prepayments hinge on an upcoming Public Utilities Commission decision on whether the utility’s rates are sufficient to pay its bills and cover the state’s power purchases on its behalf, which amount to $4.2 billion since early January.

Davis said the PUC planned to issue a draft order late Tuesday directing the utilities to pay their future QF bills.

It plans to take action on that order next Tuesday, Davis said. The Legislature plans to approve a bill in the meantime giving the PUC the authority to issue such an order and fine the utilities if they fail to comply, he said.

Davis said he is confident the utilities and the state can pay their bills without further rate increases for Edison and PG&E customers.

On the Net:

ISO: http://www.caiso.com

AP-WS-03-20-01 2255EST

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