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Heat in stifling blanket layers. Heat that enveloped all of California from the arid 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 twothirds 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, shirtsleeved 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 A.M.; 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 snowball'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 sweating, 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 he 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 hang 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, 65,000 kilowatts each—had had its status raised to "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 curves, 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 he had frequently invaded Paulsen's territory, and even though Ray Paulsen was two rungs higher in the company hierarchy, there was little he 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 self-possessed, 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.
Other men might have been embarrassed. Not so Ray Paulsen. He had climbed up through Golden State Power & Light the hard way, starting thirty-five years before as a field crew helper, then moving up to lineman, foreman and through other management positions. Once he was blown from a power pole during a mountain snowstorm and suffered spinal injuries which left him with a permanent stoop. Night college classes at the utility's expense converted young Paulsen to a graduate engineer; across the years since then his knowledge of the GSP & L system had become encyclopedic. Unfortunately, nowhere along the way had he acquired finesse or polished manners.
"Bullshit, Milly!" Paulsen shot back. "I said what I thought, just like always—and would about a man. You work like a man, expect to be treated like one."
Ms. Knight said indignantly, "Being a man or a woman has nothing to do with it. My department has a high record of forecasting accuracy—eighty percent, as you perfectly well know. You won't find better anywhere."
"But you and your people really screwed up today!"
"For Chrissakes, Ray," Nim Goldman protested. "This isn't getting us anywhere."
J. Eric Humphrey listened to the argument with apparent indifference. The chairman never said so specifically, but sometimes left the impression he had no objection to his senior staff's feuding, providing their work was not impaired. There were some in business—presumably Humphrey was one—who believed an all-harmonious organization was also a complacent one. But when the chairman needed to, he could cut through disputes with the sharp knife of authority.
At this moment, strictly speaking, the executives now in the control center—Humphrey, Nim Goldman, Paulsen, several others—had no business being there. The center was competently staffed. Actions to be taken in emergency were well known, having been worked out long ago; most were computer-activated, supplemented by instruction manuals conveniently at hand. In a crisis, however, such as the one GSP & L was facing now, this place with its upto-the-second information became a magnet for those with authority to get in.
The big question, still unresolved, was: Would demands for electric power become so great as to exceed the supply available? If the answer proved to be yes, entire banks of substation switches would necessarily be opened, leaving segments of California without power, isolating entire communities, creating chaos.
An emergency "brownout" was already in effect. Since 10 A.M. the voltage supplied to GSP & L consumers had been reduced in stages until it was now eight percent below normal. The reduction allowed some power saving but meant that small appliances like hair dryers, electric typewriters, refrigerators were receiving ten volts less than usual while equipment wired for heavy duty was being deprived of nineteen to twenty volts. The lower voltages made everything less efficient, and electric motors ran hotter and more noisily than usual. Some computers were in trouble; those not equipped with voltage regulators had already switched off automatically and would stay that way until normal voltage was restored. One side effect was to shrink television pictures in home receivers, so that they failed to fill the screen. But over a short period there should be no lasting damage. Lighting, too—from ordinary incandescent bulbs—was slightly dimmed.
An eight percent brownout, however, was the limit. Beyond that, electric motors would overheat, perhaps burn out, creating a fire hazard. Thus, if a brownout was not sufficient, the last resort was load shedding—committing large areas to total blackout.
The next two hours would tell. If GSP & L could somehow hold on until midafternoon, the time of peak demand on hot days, the load would ease until tomorrow. Then, assuming tomorrow was a cooler day—no problem.
But if the present load, which had been climbing steadily all day, continued to increase ... the worst could happen.
Ray Paulsen did not give up easily. "Well, Milly," he persisted, "today's weather forecast was ridiculously wrong. True?"
"Yes, it's true. If you want to put it in that unfair, ugly way." Millicent Knight's dark eyes flashed with anger. "But it's also true there's an air mass a thousand miles offshore called the Pacific High. Meteorology doesn't know very much about it, but sometimes it throws all California forecasts out of whack by a day or so." She added scornfully, "Or are you so wrapped up in electrical circuitry you don't know that elementary fact of nature?"
Paulsen flushed. "Now wait a minute!"
Milly Knight ignored him. "Another thing. My people and I gave an honest forecast. But a forecast, in case you've forgotten, is just that—it leaves some room for doubt. I didn't tell you to shut down Magalia 2 for maintenance. That's a decision you made—and you're blaming me for it."
The group by the table chuckled. Someone murmured, "Touché."
As they well knew, part of today's problem was the Magalia plant.
Magalia 2, part of a GSP & L facility north of Sacramento, was a big, steam-driven generator capable of putting out 600,000 kilowatts. But ever since it was built some ten years earlier, Magalia 2 had been a source of trouble. Repeated boiler tube ruptures and other, more serious malfunctions kept it frequently out of service, most recently as long as nine months while the superheater was retubed. Even after that, problems had continued. As one engineer described it, operating Magalia 2 was like keeping a leaking battleship afloat.
For the past week the plant manager at Magalia had pleaded with Ray Paulsen to allow him to shut down number 2 to repair boiler tube leaks—as he put it, "before this jinxed teakettle blows apart." Until yesterday, Paulsen had adamantly said no. Even before the present heat wave began, and because of unscheduled repair shutdowns elsewhere, Magalia 2's power had been needed for the system. As always, it was a matter of balancing priorities, sometimes taking a chance. Last night, after reading the forecast of lower temperatures for today, and weighing everything, Paulsen gave approval and the unit was shut down immediately, with work beginning several hours later when the boiler had cooled. By this morning, Magalia 2 was silent and leaky pipe sections had been cut from several boiler tubes. Though desperately needed, Magalia 2 could not be back on line for two more days.
"If the forecast had been accurate," Paulsen growled, "Magalia wouldn't have been released."
The chairman shook his head. He had heard enough. There would be time for inquests later. This was not the moment.
Nim Goldman had been conferring at the dispatch console. Now, his forceful voice cutting clearly across others', he announced, "Load shedding will have to begin in half an hour. There's no longer any doubt. We'll have to." He glanced toward the chairman. "I think we should alert the media. TV and radio can still get warnings out."
"Do it," Humphrey said. "And someone get me the Governor on the phone."
"Yes, sir." An assistant dispatcher began dialing.
Faces in the room were grim. In the utility's century-and-a-quarter history what was about to happen—intentional disruption of service—had never occurred before.
Excerpted from Overload by Arthur Hailey. Copyright © 1979 Arthur Hailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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