California avoided rolling blackouts across the state on 11-12 January 2001, by importing hydro power from the northwest US and BC Hydro in Canada.

Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the US federal agency in charge of marketing the electricity produced by the Columbia river dams, responded to California’s emergency by generating extra power and dispatching it to the California grid. BC Hydro, a provincially owned Canadian utility, which generates hydro power from dams in British Columbia also helped out.

BPA said it began shipping emergency supplies at midnight (GMT) on 11 January. It dispatched 500MW initially, before increasing this to 1000MW. The emergency supplies to California were arranged as an ‘exchange agreement’ and not as a sale, so that California will send power back to the northwest when it is available.

Blackouts have impacted customers of the state’s investor-owned utilities, Edison International (a unit of Southern California Edison) and PG&E Corporation (a subsidiary of Pacific Gas and Electric). However, customers served by municipal utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have not been impacted by the outages. Consequently power suppliers and generators have been accused of manipulating the supply.

The scarcity of power supplies to California has been aggravated by a tight supply situation in the northwest. Light rainfall and snow in the states of Oregon and Washington, as well as in British Columbia have reduced the water available at hydro dams to produce power. Precipitation levels so far this year are about 75% of normal. If the northwest hydro picture does not improve, California could find itself drawing heavily this summer on natural gas, adding even more upward pressure to its already high wholesale power prices.

About 30% of California’s power is generated from gas-fired power generation, and every new plant now under construction is gas-fired, due to the power sector avoiding hydro, coal and oil for environmental and economic reasons.