America prepares for summer power shortages

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The Independent US

America faces its most serious energy crisis since the oil crunch of the early Seventies, with power shortages and blackouts likely to strike across the country throughout the summer, officials from California to Washington DC warnedyesterday.

America faces its most serious energy crisis since the oil crunch of the early Seventies, with power shortages and blackouts likely to strike across the country throughout the summer, officials from California to Washington DC warnedyesterday.

A day after a surprise power cut knocked out supplies across California for up to eight hours - by far the most serious outage in the state so far - the issue finally reached the front pages of the country's main newspapers and shook a largely complacent public into realising the problem was serious and likely to spread.

One day of unseasonably warm weather on the west coast, encouraging the use of air conditioners, threw the grid system into chaos. The Pacific north-west could not make up California's shortfall because the region was suffering from a drought that had left its hydroelectric generators gasping. Dozens of small generating companies could not afford to run their turbines because California's two big utility firms, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, had not paid their bills for months, creating a cash crisis through the industry.

About one-third of generating capacity in California is down because of repairs. And a fire unexpectedly knocked out a power plant in the southern part of the state.

Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the Californian grid system, said: "You put all that together, and it's a bad day." Yesterday, the state was again on high alert, although slightly cooler temperatures and a modest increase in supply slightly reduced the risk of a blackout.

Unlike the previous two outages in California in mid-January, which affected only the central and northern parts of the state and lasted no more than an hour or two, Monday's blackout hit everywhere from downtown San Francisco to Beverly Hills.

Restaurants closed or improvised with cold buffets payable in cash only. Organisers of this weekend's Oscar parties wondered how many lights they would have to shine on the stars. Across the state, cars were left suspended on hydraulic stilts at tyre repair shops. Vehicles crunched into each other at junctions where the traffic lights were out. People were trapped in lifts. There was no mercy for Southern California Edison's administrative office in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, or for the state Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, which monitors the electricity industry and sets consumer prices.

The pandemonium was a wake-up call for those in America's most powerful state economy. David Freeman, who is responsible for supply power to the city of Los Angeles, said: "There is a shortage of electricity in this state. That is a fact. The general public doesn't seem to believe it, but it's true."

As temperatures rise and demand increases over the next few months, the problem is almost certain to spill into neighbouring states as well as the water-starved north-west. In several states that have embarked on imperfect deregulation schemes much like California's, a dangerous imbalance between supply and demand could trigger similar crises this summer, with New York top of the at-risk list.

Shortly before the Californian power cut on Monday, the US Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, told Congress the crunch was the biggest threat to the country since the 1973 oil crisis. "The failure to meet this challenge will threaten our nation's economic prosperity, compromise our national security and literally alter the way we live our lives," he said.

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