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Blackout warnings for police; PG&E giving notice to ease traffic jams, San Francisco


April 02, 2001
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Blackout warnings for police; PG&E giving notice to ease traffic jams, San Francisco

By Bernadette Tansey
March 30, 2001, Friday, Final Edition
The San Francisco Chronicle

(SAN FRANCISCO) - Authorities who have been caught flat-footed by rolling blackouts will get detailed information in advance from PG&E on which blocks will lose their lights during any future outages. Responding to San Francisco's plea for better notice to avoid dangerous traffic jams, Public Utilities Commissioner Carl Wood has ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to share a map of its circuitry with the mayor's Office of Emergency Services.

The information will help police officers find out more quickly which intersections will go dark. Traffic signal outages create backups and potential dangers to pedestrians and motorists, said Lucien Canton, director of emergency services.

Police now get only sketchy information from PG&E about the blocks where power might go out, Canton said.

"It's vague almost to the point of being useless," Canton said. "When the lights go out, we have to go looking for the intersections ourselves."

In an order made public yesterday, Wood told PG&E to give as much advance warning as possible when outages are imminent. Wood also directed Southern California Edison to meet with Huntington Beach officials to work out a plan to address that city's request for such information.

But Wood said he was not inclined to issue a global order for the utilities to provide detailed information on their circuits with all cities in their coverage areas.

A broader notification plan may still be in the works, however. The Independent System Operator, which runs the state's grid, will consider a proposal today for an "e-notification" system to help customers and businesses prepare before the lights go out.

Under the plan by Carl Guardino, a member of the ISO's governing board and president of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, utility customers and public agencies that wanted the warnings could submit their e-mail addresses to the ISO. The ISO would advise them whenever a blackout was possible that day and identify the outage blocks that would be affected.

PG&E has been reluctant to publicize the exact borders of rolling outage blocks, saying it was concerned that criminals would head to an area where they knew the power was going to go out.

To limit the number of people who learn about the outages, Wood told PG&E to submit the block information to the PUC. The commission will then transmit it to the San Francisco emergency services division, with strict limits on its distribution.

The utility must also tell city officials which essential customers, such as hospitals, are exempt from rolling blackouts and which are not. Canton said that list will help the city handle emergencies at nonexempt sites and to push exemptions for services that now could lose power.

PG&E spokesman John Nelson said the utility will comply with any order the commission issues.

But he said PG&E does not have circuit maps down to the level of specific intersections.

"Those maps could be developed," Nelson said. "It would certainly be very labor intensive."

The outage blocks are also constantly changing, he said, and are modified to take into account different usage patterns between summer and winter. Providing detailed circuit maps to all California cities would be "a most involved undertaking," Nelson said.

PG&E serves 49 of California's 58 counties, including hundreds of cities.

Nelson said PG&E alerts cities to the possibility of outages as soon as possible, but often gets little advance warning itself from the ISO.

The utility has also taken flak from cities that were warned of a possible outage, only to have it averted by last-minute power purchases. Some cities have threatened to sue PG&E for the extra cost of sending out public safety officers who proved not to be needed, Nelson said.

Copyright 2001 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

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