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Blackouts put Californians in a dark mood

Is generators' failure a preview of a steaming summer to come?

LOS ANGELES — In a preview of summer trouble, a heat wave combined with the sudden failure of two large power generators prompted hours of rotating blackouts from San Francisco to Beverly Hills Monday, the first since January and the longest yet, affecting at least a million customers from noon into the afternoon rush hour, officials said.

A power alert remained in effect Tuesday, but energy officials hoped cooler temperatures and the availability of additional power would help prevent more outages.

Even as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham warned in Washington that the nation faced the worst energy supply crisis since the oil embargoes and gas station lines of the 1970s, Californians found themselves working in darkened offices, standing over half-cooked steaks, closing stores and creeping warily through crowded city intersections that were without working traffic lights.

"I had one guy who almost wiped me out," on the road, said Debbie Cain, who works in the office at Folsom High School east of Sacramento, where teachers used megaphones to tell students to change classes. "He hadn't caught on yet."

The blackouts, lasting up to two hours at a time and the first to occur in some 140 cities in Southern California, were the latest fallout from the state's ill-fated experiment with partial deregulation of its electricity market, which let wholesale prices float while capping retail rates. That has left the state's two major investor-owned utilities teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to pay suppliers, including smaller generators that use natural gas or solar power, wind and wood waste products to generate nearly a third of the state's total daily electricity needs of some 30,000 megawatts, or enough to power roughly 30 million households.

As a result, in recent weeks the small generators themselves have been unable to buy fuel and have shut down about half their capacity, or 3,100 megawatts, officials said, while a bill to help them remains stalled in the state Legislature. At the same time, other plants that have been operating without a break for months are offline for maintenance or repairs, reducing supplies by another 12,000 megawatts, and imported power supplies from the Pacific Northwest are running well below typical levels due to low rainfall and diminished hydroelectric supplies there.

"This just demonstrates that we're operating at very tight margins," said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, the agency that was set up to manage the state's power grid after deregulation. "It's clearly the worst day we've ever had in California. All Californians are going to realize this is a statewide problem."

Officials said the immediate cause of the hastily ordered blackouts Monday was the mid-morning failure of two power generators following a transformer fire at a plant on the California-Nevada border, coupled with increased demand for air-conditioning as a result of unseasonably warm temperatures that climbed to 87 in downtown Los Angeles Monday.

The blackouts came as another rude awakening to a state that has been living for months in the shadow of a power emergency and, for the last two months, grappling with the painful political and financial decisions that will be needed to solve it.

Officials had one of the two failed generating units back on line late Monday night, and lower temperatures are forecast for Tuesday.

But grid operators warned that intense conservation efforts were still needed, especially during peak evening hours of demand, and that another round of blackouts was possible.

In Beverly Hills, where palm-lined streets have been synonymous with California's wealth for decades, the police department had fielded some 200 calls by mid-afternoon from residents shocked to lose their power without notice.

"They call us to tell us their power went down," said Lt. Ed Kreins, the department's media liaison. "And then they ask when it's coming back on.

It's the same thing that happens during earthquakes. People call us just to say we had an earthquake."

Not even the state's public utilities commission, which regulates the state's utilities, was spared in its San Francisco headquarters. Harriet Burt, deputy chief of staff, told the Associated Press she had a battery-powered lantern and planned to keep working.

"I think we'll just carry on as everybody else does."