A judge tonight ordered a major electricity supplier to keep selling to California despite the expiration of a Bush administration order requiring it to do so.
Just hours before the directive's midnight deadline, U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell issued a temporary restraining order requiring Reliant Energy Services Inc. to continue selling power to the state. The order will remain in effect pending a hearing Wednesday afternoon.
The judge's action, issued to avoid "obvious, irreparable harm to the public," came after the keeper of the state's power grid sought restraining orders to force three major electricity suppliers to continue selling to California.
The other two, AES Pacific Inc. and Dynegy Power Corp., agreed to continue providing power at least until the Wednesday hearing and were not included in the court's order.
Scrambling for Power
At issue was enough electricity for roughly 4 million homes. "There are about 4,000 megawatts at stake here," said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the Independent System Operator. "We have not gotten confirmation of their intentions come midnight, when the order expires. The outcome of this is going to give us a good indication of the risk of rolling blackouts tomorrow."
The U.S. Department of Energy's orders requiring power generators and natural gas producers to sell surplus supplies to California were due to expire at 12 a.m. PT. The orders, first issued in mid-December by the Clinton administration and extended by new Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, will not be renewed, the Bush administration said.
That left the managers of California's stressed grid — in the fourth straight week under a Stage 3 power alert — wondering whether enough electricity would be available to avoid rolling blackouts. The ISO ordered scattered outages twice last month.
Adding to the scramble, the ISO predicted that on Wednesday it would only get about half the 8,000 megawatts it typically draws from the Pacific Northwest during California's morning and evening peak periods.
High demand and a short supply of water for hydroelectric power were blamed. One megawatt is enough power for about 1,000 homes.
Balking at Power Loan
Gov. Gray Davis called the ISO's request for temporary restraining orders "a tempest in a teapot."
"I think they are just using this imminent deadline as a way of getting our attention but believe me, we are working on those problems and we will get them resolved," Davis told CNN.
Reliant filed a lawsuit against the ISO last week in federal court in Washington, D.C., after receiving a letter the ISO sent to 140 generators asking them to confirm that they will continue to sell power to the state despite the expiration of the federal order.
Reliant's lawsuit contends the Houston-based company shouldn't have to bear the cost of California's energy crisis.
"Incredibly, the ISO's basis for demanding that Plaintiffs provide power … is the fact that the utilities ultimately receiving the power will not be able to pay for it," the lawsuit says.
Reliant spokesmen did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday afternoon at their offices in Houston and Washington by The Associated Press seeking comment.
Search for Long-Term Solution Continues
The ISO says Reliant and other suppliers signed agreements promising to send power to California in an emergency or the threat of one, such as today's Stage 3 alert, with power reserves threatening to fall to 1.5 percent.