Cal-ISO to Implement System of Early Blackout Warnings


Meeting a tight deadline set by the governor, the manager of the state's transmission grid said Friday it was rolling out a computerized notification system designed to warn the public about impending blackouts and to spark conservation.

The California Independent System Operator will issue 48-hour forecasts when power supplies dip, temperatures soar and rotating outages seem likely; divulge their general areas 24 hours in advance; tell utilities and the media that blackouts are imminent 90 minutes beforehand; and give their precise locations an hour before they occur.

Government agencies and individual power users who sign up for the service will be alerted by fax, cell phone, pager and e-mail repeatedly until they respond to say they have received the message. Nonsubscribers will be able to check the status of their areas via utility Web sites and call centers or through the media.

The system's impetus came largely from businesses eager to minimize the potentially devastating impact of unexpected stoppages. Public safety and health facilities are not subject to rolling blackouts, although traffic signals are.

A study released in May by a business group estimated that the more than 30 days of blackouts projected for California this summer could cost industry $21.8 billion and result in 135,000 lost jobs.

"The primary goal this summer is managing the damage and without notification that's impossible," said Julie Puentes, spokeswoman for the Orange County Business Council, which has lobbied hard for a better system.

Some business groups have voiced concerns that 48-hour warnings might trigger false alarms because the power grid's state is so changeable. Cal-ISO officials agreed that might be unavoidable, but said that the longer lead time might spur enough conservation to avert blackouts.

Until now, utilities had received only a few minutes' warning before blackouts descended and provided differing degrees of advance information to their customers.

For months, Pacific Gas & Electric has told customers where, if not when, rolling outages would hit. The utility listed so-called outage blocks--areas utilities use to distribute blackouts--on customers' bills and indicated on its Web site which ones would be blacked out next.

San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison began to provide the same information this month. In the past, Edison had resisted that step, citing fears that such information could be used to commit crimes.

In assembling this system, the state's architects polled public safety officials, meeting with no objections, and did research showing that such warnings had not resulted in crime elsewhere, said Michael Kahn, chairman of Cal-ISO's board of governors.

Edison has come around too, spokesman Steve Conroy said.

"There is a rationale for that [not providing locations in advance], but this information will help people prepare," he said.

Edison is conducting the final tests on its new notification site and expects it to be operational Monday, complete with 2,100 maps detailing each outage area in the utility's service zone, Conroy said.

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