Traffic lights went out. Students in classrooms were stuck in the dark. Computer screens, bank machines and heaters all came to an abrupt halt. It seemed like Y2K came a year too late.
With the New Year came a power crisis in California. Rolling blackouts left many Northern Californians in the dark and their southern neighbors preparing for the worst. Stocks of flashlights, firewood, candles and generators were virtually swept clean from store shelves.
As the shortage persists, the University of California system consumes enough electricity per hour during peak usage – 332 megawatts – to power over 300,000 homes for the same amount of time.
UCSB, which does not have a power plant and is forced to rely on Southern California Edison, is dealing with the energy crisis on two fronts, Facilities Director David Gonzales said.
“First, we are engaged in retrofitting our systems in our buildings, such as lighting, heating and cooling, so power is used more efficiently,” he said. “Second, we are asking members on campus to conserve energy. If you don’t need equipment, then turn it off.”
Research laboratories on campus are particularly vulnerable to blackouts, Gonzales said. Buildings are equipped with power generators for emergency purposes only, such as lighting and emergency alarms. Other computer laboratories and servers in the Computer Science Dept. rely on batteries, Colin Sebern, a junior systems administrator in the Computer Science Dept, said.
“A number of things could happen [if a blackout were to occur],” he said. “Servers are on batteries, and those batteries could fail. Those machines need to be running for everything else to be running.”
Houston’s Enron Corporation is contracted to supply energy to all UC and Cal State campuses through April 1, 2002. As part of the contract, the UC pays a fixed price for electricity, which is transmitted by Southern California Edison. The contract has saved the University a considerable amount; in a Jan. 17 article, UC officials told The Associated Press the fixed price saved UC San Diego $12.3 million between April and November of 2000.
Both Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric, which serve most of Northern California, are on the brink of bankruptcy. However, state law requires utility companies to supply energy no matter how poor their financial situation is, and recently, the state purchased energy from other states to uphold this. Jointly, both companies serve 25 million people.
Rolling blackouts began affecting thousands of Northern Californians on Wednesday, Jan. 17, for as much as two hours at a time. Blackouts continued the next day and affected twice as many people.
The Independent System Operator – the state’s power grid monitor – orders blackouts. On Wednesday, the ISO came within 1,300 megawatts of ordering the first statewide blackout since World War II, according to the AP.
Over the weekend the ISO declared a Stage 3 alert, which continued through Tuesday, Jan. 23. Stage 3 alerts allow operators to impose rolling blackouts and are announced when state energy reserves fall below 1.5 percent.
Edison notified UCSB on Tuesday, Jan. 16, that it might lose power at any time. In a memo to the campus community, UCSB’s Physical Facilities Energy Manager Jim Dewey told campus personnel to expect possible one-and-a-half-hour blackouts throughout the day.
Although UCSB escaped the alert without losing power, the possibility remains that the UC system, which is one of the largest energy consumers in the state, will have to dramatically cut back its energy usage.
The combined UC schools consume roughly 332 megawatts per hour but produce 100 megawatts of power per hour at energy plants on several campuses. UC President Richard Atkinson recently proposed the idea of constructing more energy plants across the state.
A number of campuses are building plants or have their own, including UCSD, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley. “UCLA’s power plant is absolutely fascinating,” Gonzales said. “It provides about half or one-third of the entire energy needed for the campus.”
UCSD Engineering Services Assistant Director Gerry White said San Diego is building a plant, set for completion in April, which would provide up to 95 percent of the campus’s energy.