California springs into blackouts, questions linger

by Pam Boschee
Managing Editor

If you’re like me, there are times when you tire of hearing and reading about the California energy crisis. However, you remain aware of it-somewhere on the periphery-not quite able to ignore it for long.

As in rush-hour traffic’s morbid interest in the distraction afforded by a wreck, the urge to be a rubberneck is irresistible.

At press time, spring’s arrival (and its rejuvenating sunshine and warmth) was being welcomed in most regions of the country eager to escape a deep freeze. However, parts of southern California may not have shared that sense of frolicking spring fever.

It became unseasonably warm over two consecutive days, which prompted consumers to tap down their thermostats, just a hair, for comfort. That’s all the push it took to get the blackouts rolling again.

Well, that combined with more than 12,000 MW off-line because of planned or unplanned outages and decreased imports of electricity from the Pacific Northwest. A lingering effect of this past summer’s wreckage also contributed to the blackouts.

Qualifying facilities (QFs), unpaid for their product for three months (Southern California Edison Co. and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. owe the QFs $1.5 billion), had 2,900 MW of their collective 6,000 MW capacity off-line. The California Independent System Operator (ISO) said more than half the state’s QFs-small generators such as wind units and cogenerators-were not operating because of financial concerns, low wind, or the inability to pay for natural gas to run the plants.

A look ahead to the coming summer months suggests things won’t be much better than they were last summer-the predicted shortages in California range between 5,000 and 6,000 MW. Consequently, the search for answers continues.

A recently released FERC report provided some answers to earlier accusations of shady practices involving out-of-service plants during the height of last summer’s crisis. Federal regulators did not find any evidence the audited companies scheduled maintenance or outages to influence prices. Most of the problems occurred at generating plants that were 30 to 40 years old. The problems? Mechanical wear, including tube leaks and casing problems, turbine seal leaks and turbine blade wear, valve failure, pump and pump motor failures. Additionally, auditors said rather than deliberately keeping the plants out of service, the owners went the extra mile to get the units back on-line as soon as possible by accelerating maintenance and incurring additional expenses.

Another accusation by FERC, which was being examined further at press time, was that units of Williams and AES Corp. withheld electricity from two of their reliability must-run (RMR) plants in California during April and May 2000, and instead ran more profitable plants.

I recently asked Sean P. Murphy, president of Mirant New England LLC, about the possibility of such manipulation in the NEPOOL market. He commented, “No competent authority that has investigated has ever seen that actually happen. Honestly, we consider it a red herring. It’s completely ridiculous to think that generators engage in that type of behavior. Because, in effect, what you’re doing is you’re saying, ‘I’m going to shut down my plant so that my competitors can make more money.’ Business people just don’t do that.

“There are enough real issues going on today and real problems that need intelligent people to discuss them that we don’t need to be inventing things that are absolutely fantasy. And that one falls into the fantasy camp.”

Identifying, and correcting, the missteps that led to this tumble is crucial not only to California’s state of electrical affairs, but to the nation as a whole. And, other regions and states are paying attention to the postulations about what went wrong. They hope to identify what may have been red flags foreboding this wreck and swerve in plenty of time to avoid their own blackouts, disputed payments, looming bankruptcies and, Sean Murphy might add, fantasy camps.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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