- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Remember all those doomsday forecasts of blackouts rolling across California day after day, hour after hour, all summer long? They turned out a lot like the warnings of the much-vaunted Y2K problem: a lot of hot air, a paper tiger, a complete no-show.
With summer almost gone, no part of California has experienced so much as one second of power outage, as expected, from the supply shortages that have plagued the state since May 8.
Wind damage to power lines, yes. Short circuits, occasionally. But systematic blackouts, none.
That's in stark contrast to the forecasts of so-called experts.
The California Independent System Operator, which runs the state's power grid, said in April that Californians could expect at least 34 days of rolling blackouts in the summer months if they used as much electricity as last year.
The North American Electric Reliability Council predicted 260 hours of summer blackouts.
The reasons for the debunking of those seemingly overblown predictions of disaster vary from conservation to mild weather and brand new power generating capacity.
Several power plants also returned to service after being closed much of last winter and spring for repairs or "routine maintenance."
Both state and consumer groups maintain that many of those closures were deliberate attempts to drive up the price of power.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat with gubernatorial aspirations, is currently investigating the possibility that a criminal conspiracy produced the shutdowns.
Whether the massive winter and spring price boosts were criminal or merely driven by market forces, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has indicated it may approve as much as $4 billion in rebates to California for overcharges.
Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis says he will sue unless the rebate amount is much, much higher.
Meanwhile, wholesale power prices are down more than two-thirds from winter, averaging $67.42 per megawatt-hour over the last month, compared with a range of $200 to $400 per megawatt-hour in February and March.
Most analysts, however, point to the weather and consumer conservation as key factors that helped avoid blackouts altogether.
In June, Californians consumed 12.4 percent less electricity than one year earlier.
The reduction in use was 5.2 percent for July, as the weather in some parts of the state heated up a bit and many air conditioners started to run.
During peak hours, when shortages are most likely, usage was down 14.1 percent in June and 10.7 percent in July.
Consumers trimmed between 1,000 and 3,000 megawatts of usage during the daily peak hours from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — enough to power between 1 million and 3 million homes.
"Without the conservation, there would have been a major problem," said Greg Fishman, an official of the Independent System Operator.
And no one here is saying the danger of blackouts is completely gone.
"We're not out of the woods yet," said Mr. Davis as he cut a ribbon to open a "peaker" power plant near Palm Springs two weeks ago.
"We face our toughest test in early September when temperatures should hit three digits on a regular basis in many places. But this much we do know: Californians everywhere — from the workers working day and night to build new plants to the families waiting to do laundry after 7 p.m. — all of them are exceeding expectations and meeting this energy challenge."
Mother Nature has helped considerably, especially in June and July.
Cooler-than-expected temperatures in Oregon and Washington state made more power than expected available from the dams of the federal Bonneville Power Administration along the Columbia River.
"Overall, it seems like most of the summer has been a little on the low-temperature side," said Dan Atkin, a National Weather Service meteorologist stationed in San Diego.
But no one in government or the power industry is ready to say the crisis is over.
"We certainly aren't ready to stand down the bombers yet," said Stephanie Donovan, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
But, as Mr. Atkin noted, "We didn't get $3-a-gallon gasoline, either. Now you see how difficult forecasting is."


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