Viridian Note 00218: California Crisis Part I

"Bruce Sterling" <>
Friday, January 12, 2001 3:50 PM

Key concepts
California electrical power, energy crisis, storm damage

Attention Conservation Notice: Pitiless analysis of the Golden State's pathetic energy debacle. Should cause no end of chuckling schadenfreude among dirigiste EuroViridians. Part One of Three.

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(((As readers from the previous century know, it hasn't escaped Viridian notice that California is having an energy crisis. The situation is chronic. It has finally becoming intense and dramatic as bills come due and California utilities face bankruptcy. This pits California consumers against Wall Street financiers. Since they can't get directly to grips with one another (in fact, they're often the very same people), a merry search is on for scapegoats. Losing lots of money always wakes people up. We're looking at something in the neighborhood of forty billion dollars gone.

(((This situation is an ugly, multifaceted mess. It's amazing that such a debacle should strike a locale which prides itself on being technically aware. Unfortunately "technology" is best-defined as "stuff invented recently." So even though there's nothing more profoundly "technological" than a vast, hugely expensive, coal- gobbling, sky-wrecking energy network, it's been allowed to slip into fetid neglect and denial.

(((What we Viridians would like to find now is a one stop, web-based California Crisis Watch. We need a clean, well-designed place where we can pull up a Leap Chair, munch our popcorn, and watch the state's physical, electrical, digital, legal, financial, and political infrastructure brown-out from the comfort of our own homes and offices. It's too much to ask that we Viridians should supply this ourselves, since we are way too detached, cerebral, theory-centric, global and multinationalist and, uhh, lazy. Besides, why should we Viridians figure out what's going on when California's entire political and industrial establishment is blinkered, losing their heads, and loudly blaming it on anybody but themselves?

(((Somewhere on the web there must be a well-informed hobbyist pundit with a sardonic taste for whimsy who is keeping track of all this. We'll give a lovely Viridian star <*> to the person who can find us the most entertaining spot on the web in which to follow the California debacle.

(((In the meantime, let's compile a few cogent quotes from various sources that illustrate the extent and nature of the trouble. First off the bat: the link between blackouts and weather violence.)))

David Lazarus, San Francisco Chronicle January 11, 2001

"The California Independent System Operator has downgraded Thursday's Stage Three power emergency to a Stage Two emergency, ending the threat of rolling blackouts across the Bay Area. (...) (((They escaped another blackout bullet == for now. But winter is supposed to be the easy season for California utilities.)))

"Earlier Thursday, an underground explosion triggered a power outage that is affecting traffic signals and about 4,000 customers in northern San Francisco. (...) Motorists are reminded to treat broken signals as a four-way stop sign." (((Californians need a lot of reminders about everyday Third World conditions. Maybe a nice paper manual, in big print, for candle-light.)))

"Cal ISO issued a warning today that rolling power blackouts could affect the entire state until 8 p.m."

Current system conditions at the California ISO. This website shows California's power hunger in real-time. Note the direct relevance of weather conditions.

"Kellan Fluckiger, the ISO's chief operating officer, said blackouts this evening could affect as many as 2 million homes.

"'We are working with neighboring states to access all possible megawatts,' he said. 'We're asking for all the megawatts we can get.' (((Nice slogan, Kellan. Maybe you should print T-shirts.)))

"Fluckiger blamed today's shortage on mechanical difficulties at a number of plants, as well as on bottlenecks in transmission lines." (((These are infrastructure problems. They have nothing to do with the political problems of deregulation, or the economic problems of price spikes in natural gas. Californian power demand has outgrown California's physical network. And the real devil here is climate disruption. Nobody built that network to operate under well-nigh constant storms and heat spikes.)))

"He also said high seas affected intake of cooling water at some coastal plants, including PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear power station. Kelp and debris became entangled in valves, causing generators to be turned off." (((A remarkable weather-related nuclear-power dysfunction here.)))

"If rolling blackouts are called for, PG&E has divided its 4.5 million customers into blocks; each block would be darkened for about an hour at a time. " (((It should prove interesting to live in blackout checkerboards like that. What might life be like if that went on for months?)))

Don Thompson, Associated Press Thursday, January 11, 2001

"(01-11) 12:54 PST SACRAMENTO (AP) == California faced the threat of rolling blackouts Thursday as a storm and maintenance needs hampered key power plants, cutting generation one-third in the already energy-strapped state. (((More storms, more maintenance.)))

"California's power production fell more than 15,000 megawatts == or one-third of the state's generating capacity == in part due to a storm carrying high winds and heavy rain, Dorinson said. One megawatt is enough to power 1,000 homes for an hour.

"Key plants hit by the storm included the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo along the Pacific north of Los Angeles, which was hampered by high surf that blew sea kelp into its intake valves.

"Storm-tossed waves that could rise as high as 28 feet forced Diablo Canyon to cut to just 20 percent of normal output. Each of the station's two 1,100-megawatt generators provide enough electricity to serve about a million people." (((On a positive note, surf's up.)))

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