Wednesday, September 18, 2002

And now, a brief study in avoiding the obvious.

The California Public Utilities Commission has published a report on what power generation companies were doing during the power crisis which briefly led to rotating blackouts last year. Their claim, at the time, was that they couldn't meet even off-peak winter and spring demand due to lack of capacity. This claim was a little mysterious, as winter demand is substantially much lower than summer demand, and there had not been blackouts in previous summers --- but they fudged this by saying that plants were off-line for maintenance.

But it turns out that even the plants off-line for "maintenance" can't account for the shortfall:

For example, on May 8, 2001, there were two-hour blackouts caused by a shortage of 400 megawatts of power in Northern and Southern California. But Duke Energy had about 1,000 megawatts of available capacity that was not used that day, the commission report said. "Thus, Duke alone had more available and unused power than the total amount of power that was needed to avoid the blackout that day," it said.

So, why were operable plants being kept idle in the midst of a power crisis? Could it be... that they were running up the price?

Now, now, says the commission, let's not jump to conclusions:

The commission did not directly accuse the companies of deliberately trying to drive prices up. Officials said investigations were continuing into possible price manipulation and collusion among the companies.

And what do you know, we have a real-life case of just plain bad reporting in the Times. It satisfies the American journalists' fetish for "balance" by uncritically repeating spin from utility spokesmen that some of the plants in question were off-line for, among other things, the installation of pollution control equipment, trying to shift blame to eeevil regulators. But the actual report says up front that it counts as "available power" only power that was reported by the generators themselves as available on a particular day, "accepting generator claims of plant outages and mechanical problems at face value".

In short, the utility line was just false, and the Times failed to say so. Gee, I wonder whether the Times-obsessives in the blogsphere will be complaining about this particular piece of sloppy journalism?


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