Energy grid threatened by Northwest cold

LOS ANGELES - California's main power supplier issued an emergency warning for the seventh consecutive day Sunday, and utilities in the Northwest urged customers to cut back electricity use as temperatures there plunged.

''A warning like this is price-blind, it's not an economic action. Energy isn't available at any price,'' said Dulcy Mahar, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Emergency Response Team, comprised of Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho utilities and state representatives.

The Northwest group met Sunday and reissued a Stage Two warning for the region, where temperatures were about 15 degrees below normal.

While the Northwest cold snap isn't expected to be as harsh as previously thought, forecasters still expect temperatures will dip well into the 20s this week.

''Just about every degree above what was previously expected makes things a little bit better,'' Jay Albrecht, a National Weather Service forecaster in Seattle, said of the weather's impact on the energy crisis.

The cold weather in the Northwest affects much of California because as the cold increases, natural gas that powers generating facilities could be diverted to Washington and Oregon to heat homes and offices.

The Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid that serves 75 percent of California, also issued a Stage Two emergency on Sunday and urged residents statewide to keep their holiday lights off until 7 p.m.

Stage Two emergencies, indicating power reserves are at less than 5 percent, were issued in California each day last week, and on Thursday, an unprecedented Stage Three emergency was issued, meaning reserves had fallen below 1 percent and the threat of rolling outages loomed.

Electricity deregulation, the cold weather and rising power costs have been blamed for the state's recent power problems.

California approved a phased-in deregulation of the electricity market in 1996 in an effort to lower prices for consumers through competition, but so far it has only led to higher energy prices. The Northwest, which relies on hydroelectric power, has struggled with low water tables and has had to import electricity from other states, including California.

At the request of California officials, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Friday approved lifting price caps on wholesale California electricity to ease the power crunch. The order means the $250 per megawatt hour limit for wholesale electricity can be exceeded if the sellers can justify the costs. A megawatt is enough to power about 1,000 homes.

California Gov. Gray Davis criticized the move saying it would only lead to more price increases. But officials with the power grid operator said Sunday that lifting the price cap had already affected the power market.

Wholesale power costs have been soaring, due in large part to skyrocketing prices for natural gas. Wholesale natural gas, which sold for less than $20 per million British thermal units a week ago, now sells for three times that.

''Our emergency action we took on Friday has certainly helped,'' said Independent System Operator spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle. ''It made megawatts available to the market.''

The power flow will receive another boost Monday when a unit at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in the San Francisco Bay Area is expected to resume production after one of its two units was shut down for maintenance, McCorkle said. The two units can provide enough power for about 2 million people.


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