Page 1 of Overload

Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.

St. Luke, 12:

0 dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon . . .

John Milton

Since . . . 1974, the rate at which new electrical generating capacity has been built in California has fallen to less than half of the 1970-74 level. s a result, the threat of an economically ruinous power crunch by the 1990's is very real; and there is already apprehension over the danger of brownouts and blackouts in the 1980's . . .

Fortune magazine




Heat in stifling blanket layers. Heat that enveloped all of California from the and Mexican border in the south to majestic Klamath Forest, elbowing northward into Oregon. Heat, oppressive and enervating. Four days ago a hot, dry thermal trough a thousand miles long, three hundred wide, had settled over the state and sat there like a brooding hen. This morning-a Wednesday in July-a Pacific frontal system was supposed to shove the heat wave eastward, introducing cooler air, with showers on the north coast and in the mountains. It hadn't happened. Now, at 1 p.m., Californians still sweltered in temperatures from ninety degrees to well over a hundred, with no relief in sight.

Throughout cities and suburbs, in factories, offices, stores and homes, six million electric air-conditioners hummed. On thousands of farms in the fertile Central Valley-the richest agricultural complex in the world-armies of electric pumps gulped water from deep wells, directing it to thirsty cattle and parched crops-grain, grapes, citrus fruits, alfalfa, zucchini, a hundred more. Multitudes of refrigerators and food freezers ran unceasingly. And elsewhere the normal electrical demands of a pampered, spoiled, convenience-oriented, gadget-minded, power-guzzling populace continued unabated.

California had known other heat waves and survived their consequences. But in none had demands for electric power been so great. "That's it, then," the chief electric dispatcher said unnecessarily.

* * *

“There goes the last of our spinning reserve."

Everyone within hearing already knew it. And everyone, in this case, included regular staff and company executives, all crowding the Energy Control Center of Golden State Power & Light. Golden State Power-or, more often, GSP & L-was a giant, a General Motors among public utilities. It was the wellspring which produced and distributed two-thirds of California's electric power and natural gas. Its presence was as familiar in the state as sunshine, oranges and wine, and usually taken just as much for granted. GSP & L was also rich, strong and-by self-description-efficient. Its all-pervasiveness sometimes earned it the sobriquet "God's Power & Love."

The Energy Control Center of GSP & L was a security-restricted, underground command post, once described by a visitor as like a hospital operating theater mated with the bridge of an ocean liner. Its centerpiece was a communications console on a dais two steps above floor level. Here the chief dispatcher and six assistants worked. Keyboards of two computer terminals were nearby. The surrounding walls housed banks of switches, diagrams of transmission line circuits and substations, with colored lights and instruments announcing the present status of the utility's two hundred and five electrical generating units in ninety-four plants around the state. The atmosphere was busy as a half dozen assistant dispatchers monitored a constantly changing mass of information, though the sound level remained low, the result of engineered acoustics.

"You're damn positive there's no more power we can buy?"

The question came from a tallish, muscularly built, shirt sleeved figure standing at the dispatch dais. Nim Goldman, vice president, planning, and assistant to the chairman of GSP & L, had his tie loosened in the heat and part of a hairy chest was visible where the top buttons of his shirt were open. The chest hair was like that of his head-black and curly with a few fine wires of gray. The face, strong, big-boned and ruddy, had eyes which looked out with directness and authority and most times-though not at the moment-with a hint of humor. In his late forties, Nim Goldman usually appeared younger, but not today because of strain and fatigue. For the past several days he had stayed at work until midnight and been up at 4 am; the early rising had required early shaving so that he now had the stubble of a beard. Like others in the control center, Nim was sweating, partly from tension, partly from the fact that the air-conditioning had been adjusted several hours ago in deference to an urgent plea-originating here and transmitted through TV and radio to the public-to use less electric power because of a grave supply crisis. But, judging by a climbing graph line of which everyone in the center was aware, the appeal had gone mostly unheeded.

The chief dispatcher, a white-haired veteran, looked offended as he answered Nim's question. For the past two days two dispatch aides had been continually on phones, like desperate housewives, shopping for surplus power in other states and Canada. Nim Goldman knew that. "We're pulling in every bit we can get from Oregon and Nevada, Mr. Goldman. The Pacific Intertie's loaded. Arizona's helping out a little, but they've got problems too. Tomorrow they're asking to buy from us.

"Told 'em there wasn't a snowhall's chance," a woman assistant dispatcher called over.

"Can we make it through this afternoon ourselves?" This time it was J. Eric Humphrey, chairman of the board, who turned from reading a situation report developed by computer. As usual, the chairman's cultured voice was low-key in keeping with his old-Bostonian aplomb, worn today as always like a suit of armor. Few ever penetrated it. He had lived and thrived in California for thirty years but the West's informal ways had not dulled Eric Humphrey's New England patina. He was a small, compact person, tidy in features, contact-lensed, impeccably groomed. Despite the heat, he wore a dark business suit complete with vest, and if he was swhating, the evidence of it was decently out of sight.

"Doesn't look good, sir," the chief dispatcher said. He popped a fresh Gelusil antacid tablet in his mouth; he had lost count of how many be had had today. Dispatchers needed the tablets because of tensions of their job and GSP & L, in an employee-relations gesture, had installed a dispenser where packets of the soothing medicine were available free. Nim Goldman added, for the chairman's benefit, "If we do bang on, it'll be by our fingernails-and a lot of luck."

As the dispatcher had pointed out moments earlier, GSP & L's last spinning reserve had been brought to full load. What he had not explained, because none there needed to be told, was that a public utility like Golden State Power & Light had two kinds of electrical reserve "spinning" and "ready." the spinning reserve comprised generators running, but not at full capacity, though their output could be increased immediately if needed. The ready reserve included any generating plants not operating but prepared to start up and produce full load in ten to fifteen minutes.

An hour ago the last ready reserve-twin gas turbines at a power plant near Fresno, 65,ooo kilowatts each-bad had its status raised to 11 spinning."

Now the gas turbines, which had been coasting along since then, were going to "maximum output," leaving no reserves of either kind remaining.

A morose-appearing, bulky man, slightly stooped, with a Toby jug face and beetling brows, who had listened to the exchange between the chairman and dispatcher, spoke up harshly. "Goddammit to hell! If we'd had a decent weather forecast for today, we wouldn't be in this bind now." Ray Paulsen, executive vice president of power supply, took an impatient pace forward from a table where he and others had been studying power consumption curyes, comparing today's with those of other hot days last year.

"Every other forecaster made the same error as ours," Nim Goldman objected. "I read in last night's paper and heard on the radio this morning we'd have cooler air."

"That's probably exactly where she got it-from some newspaper! Cut it out and pasted it on a card, I'll bet." Paulsen glared at Nim, who shrugged. It was no secret that the two detested each other. Nim, in his dual role as planner and as the chairman's assistant, had a roving commission in GSP&L which cut across department boundaries. In the past be had frequently iwaded Paulsen's territory, and even though Ray Paulsen was two rungs higher in the company hierarchy, there was little lie could do about it.

"If by 'she' you mean me, Ray, you could at least have the good manners to use my name." Heads turned. No one had seen Millicent Knight, the utility's chief meteorologist, petite, brunette and selfpossessed, come into the room. Her entry was not surprising, though. The meteorology department, including Ms. Knight's office, was part of the control center, separated only by a glass wall.