Californians Brace for Rolling Blackouts

While an ongoing energy crises casts a cloud over California and its economy, the future looks bright at Real Goods, a Hopwood, Calif., specialist in alternative energy systems.

A sign next to an array of solar collectors outside the retail outlet proclaims, "What Energy Crisis? We Get Our Electricity From the Sun." The sign seems to be reeling in plenty of people who want to inoculate themselves against rolling blackouts, said John Schaeffer, founder and president of Real Goods, which bills itself as the company that sold the world's first solar panel, in 1978.

"People are deluging our phone lines, they're buying solar like never before," Schaeffer said. "Whenever there's an environmental crisis, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the war in Iraq, we've seen our sales spike."

Monday’s Blackout an Ominous Sign

Power-starved Californians are learning the hard way that neither governments nor power companies can prevent temporary outages this summer. Indeed, an early spate of warm weather forced an hour of scattered, statewide electrical blackouts on Monday, reminding California residents of what could be a trying season ahead. More blackouts were expected today.

Energy officials said Monday's blackouts were a bad omen, given that temperatures in much of the state were not particularly high. California uses more electricity in the summer because air conditioners suck up large amounts of power.

State officials warn that there will likely be numerous blackouts this summer, as electricity demand outstrips supplies by as much as 6,800 megawatts, or enough electricity for almost 7 million homes. The Independent System Operator, which manages California's electric grid, has already ordered blackouts on five days this year to save the system from breaking down. Independent utilities implement the blackouts.

Dims the Lights, Please

Rising power costs and the promise of outages have Californians asking what they can do themselves to get through the crisis.

Fear of outages has juiced battery sales, as homeowners scramble to make sure home security systems will work after the power is shut off and businesses seek to protect their computer systems, said Rita Haan, owner of Modesto Battery Co. in Modesto, Calif.

Rolling blackouts are particularly threatening to the ill and disabled, said Haan, who has done a brisk business with customers who rely on respirators or whose lives may depend on staying in touch with relatives or health-care providers.

Some California residents recoil from their sharply higher electricity bills and conclude that they need is a new refrigerator. "We have a lot of people coming in who otherwise wouldn't be thinking of buying," said Don Brown of Hal's Appliance in Vallejo, Calif.

A 15-year-old refrigerator might suck up $15 to $30 worth of electricity a month, Brown said, depending on its size. "It costs about $6 or $7 a month, at California's current power rates, to keep the new energy efficient ones plugged in and running," Brown added.

So far, retailers report none of the panic buying seen during the Y2K millennium scare. "The main thing we've seen is that people are buying low-wattage light bulbs," said a Home Depot manager in Sacramento.

ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.