State Finds More 'Suspicious' Plant Outages

Times Staff Writer

State regulators have found more examples of "suspicious" power plant shutdowns during California's energy crisis, supporting a controversial assessment in September that most of the state's blackouts could have been avoided if plant owners had generated all the energy they were capable of, according to a report released Thursday.

The report to the state Public Utilities Commission reexamined the September conclusions in light of objections by the five companies that control most of the power plants.

The generators blasted the original report as misleading because it did not excuse legitimate plant outages.

Thursday's report made slight adjustments to some of the conclusions, including that 14 of the 16 hours of blackouts in Southern California could have been avoided -- down from the original conclusion that all hours could have been avoided.

PUC investigators said generator complaints "ignore the fact that California experienced an unprecedented energy crisis during the period studied in the report and that the behavior of the generators contributed to that crisis."

In addition, more examples of "problematic outages" were uncovered in which power plants unexpectedly suffered several major problems at once, operators did not take "appropriate care" in preventive maintenance and plant shutdowns were extended because new problems were discovered, Thursday's report said.

In one instance cited, a Southern California plant operated by AES/Williams was out of service from Jan. 10 to Jan. 20, 2001, because of problems with fan motors that may have been caused by poor maintenance procedures.

During that period, Cal-ISO ordered about 60 hours of power interruptions, including blackouts, the report said.

A spokesman for Williams Cos., which markets the energy from the California plants owned by AES Corp., could not be reached for comment.

Pat Mullen, spokesman for Duke Energy, said the new staff report agrees with one instance in which Duke said the commission had mischaracterized a plant outage.

Duke has offered to explain other outages, but the PUC staff has not responded to the offer, he said.

"We believe the public would be better served if the PUC completed its investigation and issued a final, documented report as opposed to issuing incomplete, unsubstantiated reports," Mullen said.

The PUC also Thursday announced the appointment of consumer advocate William Ahern as executive director, replacing Wesley Franklin, 54, who will become an advisor to new PUC President Michael Peevey.

Ahern, 59, spent 10 years at the PUC and most recently was a senior policy analyst with Consumers Union in San Francisco.

Separately, the California Department of Water Resources sued to break the state's long-term electricity contract with Allegheny Energy Inc., claiming that the company violated the terms of the expensive contract signed during the energy crisis.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court, seeks to terminate the $4.4-billion, 10-year contract because of Allegheny's deteriorating financial condition and because the Hagerstown, Md.-company transferred the contract to a newly formed subsidiary.

Allegheny Energy said it "categorically rejects" the department's allegations.

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