Search the Archive:

Back to the Table of Contents Page

Back to The Almanac Home Page


Issue date: January 24, 2001

Black-outs spotty, but not random Black-outs spotty, but not random (January 24, 2001)

By Rebecca Wallace

Special to the Almanac

Lights died and digital clocks blinked last week during rolling black-outs tied to the state's power crisis.

Homes, businesses and schools went dark for an hour or two at a time. The power outages seemed to strike without rhyme or reason, hopscotching all over the area.

While customers were lining up outside a darkened Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream Store in Menlo Park on Thursday, there were no reported problems over at Roberts Market in Woodside.

And some spots were only partially hit; about half of Menlo School had an outage on Thursday, while the rest of it was unaffected, director of communications Marion Cavanagh said.

That seeming randomness was actually intentional, Pacific Gas & Electric Company spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp said.

All of PG&E's territory, from Bakersfield to just south of the Oregon border, is divided into 14 blocks. When a power outage is ordered, officials choose particular blocks to black out. But the blocks don't correspond with specific geographical areas.

As an example, Ms. Ramp said: "We have circuits throughout the entire area that are block three. We don't want to overburden one area and not another."

Customers can tell what blocks they are in by checking the lower left-hand corner of their electricity bills, Ms. Ramp said.

If there's no number, the customer is probably in what's called block 50, which is a circuit shared with an "essential service" such as a hospital or a police station. Circuits containing essential services are spared from rotating black-outs.

Half of Menlo School was in such a block, which explains the partial outage, Ms. Cavanagh said.

While PG&E officials are trying to get the word out in advance about which blocks will be hit, often by informing the media, PG&E itself may not get much warning from the ISO, Ms. Ramp said.

Last week, many people didn't get a warning at all.

At Baskin-Robbins in Menlo Park, the doors were closed from about 11 a.m. to noon during a Thursday black-out. The store was set to open at 11.

The store doesn't have a back-up source of power, and employees didn't want to open up cases and have the ice cream melt, said a store employee who didn't want her name used.

"We were caught very surprised," the employee said. "If we had known that the black-out in our store would start at 11, we would not have opened the covers of the dipping cabinets. We would have waited until it was over."

Across town at the Menlo Park Library, the lights were on, but no one was home -- at least as far as the computer network was concerned.

The library did not have a power outage, but its computer system is based at the College of San Mateo, which had a black-out on Thursday, library director Karen Fredrickson said.

"The Internet was not available, and our magazine indexes were out, and the computer catalog," Ms. Fredrickson said. The problems lasted from about 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., she said.

Traffic stacked up at major intersections where traffic lights were out. Things were notably bad Thursday on Marsh Road at Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park and Marsh and Middlefield roads in Atherton, Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dominick Peloso said.

Drivers and pedestrians should be watchful at intersections hit by black-outs and treat them as four-way stops, Cmdr. Peloso said.

In buildings, all electrical appliances should be turned off if the power goes out to avoid possible damage from power surges when the black-out is over, Ms. Ramp said. People should leave one light on so they'll know when the power comes back on.


Copyright © 2001 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.