Thousands lose power after botched experiment

California imports power from Canada after blackout
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The Independent US

Pushed over the brink by its botched experiment with deregulation, California cut off power to hundreds of thousands of people in the first rolling blackouts imposed during its electricity crisis.

Pushed over the brink by its botched experiment with deregulation, California cut off power to hundreds of thousands of people in the first rolling blackouts imposed during its electricity crisis.

Lights blinked off about noon yesterday in parts of San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose, as well as other sections of Silicon Valley.

No major problems were reported, but the outages knocked out TV stations, cash machines and traffic lights across the San Francisco Bay area, backing up traffic and forcing college professors to hold class in dimly lit classrooms. Police officers directed traffic and store owners turned to pocket calculators.

The rotating, hourlong blackouts in northern and central parts of the state were halted in the afternoon. A second wave of blackouts in the evening was averted as the power supply met demands. Los Angeles was considered safe because it has its own utility.

Utilities avoided cutting power to essential services such as hospitals and airports. Citing security reasons, they declined to identify exactly which areas lost power.

"If you knew power was out in certain areas, you'd also know that alarms were out and security cameras were out," said Ron Low, spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., whose territory stretches from Oregon to Bakersfield, 500 miles away.

Despite several close calls in recent weeks, it was the first time the Independent System Operator, the keeper of the grid, failed to scrounge up enough electricity from around the country to avoid scattered outages.

Jim Detmers, ISO managing director of operations, said several power plants that were expected to return to full operation yesterday after repairs did not.

He also said out-of-state power suppliers were not selling badly needed electricity to California because the state's two largest utilities were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson extended an emergency order requiring power suppliers to sell electricity to California until midnight Tuesday.

"The order makes it clear we have the power to enforce the order should we find that any suppliers haven't complied," said Matt Nerzig, a Richardson spokesman. "We wouldn't be making it clear if we hadn't heard reports that this might be happening."

The state also implemented its plan to cut power five percent by scaling back use in state offices and shutting down huge pumps that send water from Northern California to the south.

California has struggled for months with the effects of deregulating its electricity market. Under the plan, private utilities had to sell their power plants and buy electricity on the open market - an approach that was supposed to lead to lower rates.

But PG&E and the state's other major utility, Southern California Edison Co, have lost at least $10 billion because of soaring wholesale prices for electricity and because rate caps imposed under deregulation have prevented them from passing on those costs to customers.

State lawmakers are scrambling to find a fix. The Assembly approved a plan on Tuesday under which the state would buy electricity from wholesalers and sell it to struggling utilities at about one-fifth the going market rate. The measure now moves to the Senate.

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