Summer's heat poses test for California power

A long, hot summer is not going to be welcome in the nation's most populous state. Californians are being warned that electrical reserves will be tight. And steps are being taken to lower power consumption.

The state Public Utilities Commission estimates electrical reserves will be "minimally adeaquate" during the hotter months when power usage is increased by air conditioners. The commission has mapped out a reserve- sharing plan and a three-stage load reduction program to be in effect through Oct. 31, if necessary.

A prolonged heat wave or major electric plant outages could spell problems. Lower- than-usual temperatures prevailed in May and June. But peak heat periods are ahead. The most crucial month projected by the commission is September, when the combined reserve margin is expected to slip to 6.3 percent for the five main utilities in the state, figuring scheduled and forced outages. Reserve margins under 7 percent are below desirable levels, the authority explains.

Already, a request has gone out to keep home and building temperatures no lower than 78 degrees in California in efforts to reduce power demand boosted by air conditioners. This is 4 degrees higher than the minimum elsewhere in the nation under a US Department of Energy proposal that is coupled with certain energy-saving measures. California is under an emergency order that supersedes the federal minimum.

"We foresee electric capacity this summer adequate to meet all needs, but reserve margins will be tight," John Bryson, president of the Public Utilities Commission, says. "While we do not expect that measures beyond prudent conservation will be required, we are adopting th eplan to ensure that there will be as little inconvenience or disruption as possible in the event of unexpected shortages."

The PUC is hoping that "substantial additional conservation and load reduction can be achieved on a permanent basis of voluntary actions of the customers of the five major utilities." The agency also is calling for employers to allow casual dress through Oct. 31 "whenever possible to eliminate or minimize discomfort at the higher air conditioning temperatures."

The standby plan calls for sharing power supplies among major utilities under the coordination of a lead utility official. If reserve margins fall below certain levels, Stage I, II, or III alerts would be called.

A Stage I alert, set off when reserves slipped to 5 percent, would require that air conditioner settings during peak hours be raised to 85 degrees and that lighting and use of residential appliances be curtailed or deferred. A Stage II alert, when margins fell to 3 percent, would call for air conditioners and other big power consumers to be turned off. A Stage III alert, the most serious -- when margins dropped to 1.5 percent -- would initiate service interruptions.

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