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California within 300 MW of outages; PUC seeks interruptible input

By ANN DE ROUFFIGNAC
OGJ Online

HOUSTON, Texas, Feb. 13, 2001—California averted blackouts Monday evening but only after some large customers volunteered to shut off their electricity.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO) was about 300 MW short during the evening peak period, coming perilously close to ordering rolling blackouts for the first time since January.

“We got 363 MW of interruptible load and some other magic megawatts appeared,” says Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the ISO. “But there is not one valid [interruptible load] program in place anymore.”

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) suspended all interruptible load programs under which participants receive a discount on their rates in exchange for turning off power when asked until further notice on Jan. 26. The PUC staff issued a report on the program last week and public hearings are scheduled through March 1.

“We don’t have any new [interruptible] plans for the summer,” says Tom Boyd, spokesman for Southern California Edison Co. “We will have to wait for the hearings.”

The ISO has relied heavily on interruptible load to get through tight supply and demand conditions this winter and last summer. It is forecasting severe shortages of electricity in the range of 3,000 MW to 6,800 MW for the upcoming summer months. The forecast includes an estimate of zero interruptible load available all summer.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s program of 380 MW for 2001 is already exhausted. Southern California Edison Co., a unit of Edison International, still has 1,800 MW of or about half its interruptible load left this year. Customers with remaining hours of curtailment left in Edison’s program are not inclined turn off their power because penalties for not complying have been suspended.

“We can only ask for volunteers and appeal to their sense of civic duty,” says Boyd.

The PUC staff report concludes that the existing programs need to be revamped and replaced. Its findings show:

• Interruptible load is needed because each megawatt in the program could potentially save 1,000 residences from blackouts lasting 60-90 minutes.

• Interruptible programs are expensive and comparable to the cost of energy in the wholesale market. The PUC said the program has cost $2 billion since 1990. How much to pay customers to participate is not clear.

• Programs run by the utilities, demand response programs administered by the ISO, and any new programs developed by the commission need to be coordinated.

The PUC staff recommends customers in Southern California Edison’s program not be allowed to “opt out” of the existing program going forward except those providing public health and safety services. Some flexibility in terms of time between curtailments should be added, it recommended.

In addition to existing programs, the PUC staff says new ones need to be developed.

The staff proposed a program which would allow customers to be curtailed for a certain number of hours for a monthly discount. Once the required hours are exhausted, these customers should receive monetary compensation in exchange for interruptions.

The staff also suggested a program that would allow customers to agree to use less energy prior to a Stage 3 blackout and be exempt from outages if energy reduction targets are met.

The commission is holding five separate public hearings on the program beginning Feb. 22.-March 1.

With time growing short, industry sources question if customers can be signed up for new interruptible programs and existing programs amended in time to help alleviate the ISO forecast shortage of 3,030 MW expected for May.

Contact Ann de Rouffignac at [email protected].