As heat soars, Californians try to keep their cool

Triple-digit temperatures sear much of the Golden State.

Work-at-home accountant Linda Sesma has been starting her day with a new routine: Fix breakfast, check e-mail, wet the shirt. "With the overhead fans going, this does the trick, otherwise it's too hot," Ms. Sesma says.

West Hills summer baseball player Ryan Torres, 15, is curtailing practice and every other outdoor activity. "It really is too hot to go out. It's best just to sit inside, try not to move, and drink a lot of water," says Ryan. "If I go out, it's just to jump in the pool."

Retired grandmother Elizabeth Sandy of West Hills is not only dealing with heat discomfort, but spoiled food after 16,000 local households went black over the weekend, shutting off fans, air conditioners, lights, and refrigerators. She and her neighbors are now stocking up with ice and coolers for possible blackouts ahead.

With triple-digit temperatures singeing much of California for 10 days as of Tuesday – including an all-time record of 119 degrees F. Saturday in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, most of California is in the grip of how to cope. With a capital "C" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for 'power outage.'

"I've been running dish- and clothes-washers late at night by candlelight to spare the daytime electricity drain, which might keep blackouts from happening in the first place," says Ms. Sandy.

State highways have buckled from the heat. Tens of thousands have spent time in the dark in cities from San Diego to San Francisco because outages have hit all three of the state's major power companies.

A continued heat wave across the US is also responsible for prolonged blackouts in New York City. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, 150,000 people are sweltering without electricity after a storm blew through last Thursday. The temperatures have topped 100 degrees F. there in recent days.

The hottest temperatures have been in the West. Records have been set in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, according to Electricity use in California hit an all-time high Monday (50,270 megawatts) – testing the limits of new power capacity added since the state's rolling blackouts made world headlines in 2000 and 2001.

The state now has 7,000 more megawatts available than in 2001, enough for about 5 million customers – but population has increased by about 3 million, and this prolonged heat wave is putting a cumulative strain on the electric grid. The California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO) which manages the state's power grid, says the heat has engulfed most of the state, putting a heavier strain on all transmission lines and switching stations – blowing transformers in older areas, some with technology from the 1930s.

At least 36 deaths were caused by the heat, mostly in California's arid agricultural Central Valley that has been unusually humid, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

"When you have this kind of heat day after day, houses and businesses don't really cool off. Each morning the air conditioners have that much further to go to keep things cool," says Kristina Osborne, spokeswoman for CAISO.

The state has issued three Stage One alerts this summer, all in the past week. The alert notifies businesses and residents that power use has risen to within 7 percent of capacity, and asks them to voluntarily reduce power use during the day.

Consumers' willingness to voluntarily limit power use has helped the system avoid more blackouts.

The long heat wave shows several lessons that have been learned since the rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001, say Ms. Osborne and others. Among them is the importance of having prearranged agreements for additional power before a crisis, so that supplies are already contracted for, and stressful, real-time bargaining – usually more costly to consumers – is avoided. A California law requiring these prearranged contracts went into effect June 1.

"California is doing a great job in riding out a once-in-50-years occurrence," says Stephanie McCorkle, communications director of CAISO. She says normal planning is for a once-in-two-years electrical demand and even major- crisis planning is only for a once-in-10-years occurrence, she says. The California Public Utilities Commission now requires that 95 to 97 percent of contingency power needs be contracted ahead of time. In 2001, the threshold was only 70 percent – leading power officials scrambling to find more power to keep the state's lights from going out, and putting them at the mercy of power brokers.

"It's the same thing as not waiting until the last minute to buy your plane ticket," says Ms. McCorkle. "When you do that, you pay a higher price and get a worse seat."

Though the state has gained 7,000 new megawatts in the past five years, the average consumer's power demand has risen in the past few years, she and others say. It's happened as a result of the development of more homes in the hotter, inland areas of the state; the push to build bigger homes; the rebuilding of older homes to include air conditioning; and a general climatic trend of higher humidity – all requiring more use of air conditioners.

Higher humidity may have helped contain a canyon fire that broke out in Sherman Oaks Tuesday. The blaze could have moved faster and farther in drier conditions, fire officials said. The NWS said the humidity came from the combination of a weak marine layer off the Pacific – which kept temperatures higher – and monsoon-like moisture in air masses over Mexico.

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