SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Californians will soon be waking up to the weather, the traffic - and a blackout forecast.
The operator of the state's electricity grid said Monday it will start issuing forecasts 24 hours ahead of expected rolling blackouts.
The agency also promised to give 30 minutes' warning before it orders utilities to pull the plug on homes and businesses, a move that could prevent traffic accidents, stuck elevators and costly shutdowns at factories.
Up to now, the agency has refused to give more than a few minutes' warning, saying it did not want to alarm people when there was still a chance that a last-minute purchase of power could stave off blackouts. The utilities have also resisted giving warnings, saying they did not want to tip off burglars and other criminals.
"People are asking for additional notice, so we're doing our best to make that a reality," said Lorie O'Donley, a spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator.
Californians have been warned that rolling blackouts could be a regular feature this summer. The state's power system, crippled by a botched effort at deregulation, has been unable to produce or buy enough electricity to power air conditioners on hot days.
The rolling blackouts move from neighborhood to neighborhood in a sequence that is determined by the utilities and is difficult or impossible for the public to predict. The outages last 60 to 90 minutes and then skip to another neighborhood.
Because of the lack of notice, the six days of rolling blackouts to hit the state so far this year have led to pileups at intersections suddenly left without stoplights, people trapped in elevators, and losses caused by stopped production lines. People with home medical equipment like oxygen fret they that they will be cut off without warning.
The new plan by the ISO borrows from the language of weather forecasters: Beginning May 30, it will issue a "power watch" or "power warning" that will give notice the grid could be headed toward blackouts.
The ISO will issue 30-minute warning to the media and others before any blackouts actually begin. However, the ISO will not say what neighborhoods will be hit.
"Any time is better than none," said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association. "Obviously, we'd like more, but we're realistic about what they can do."