Cold temperatures mean lights off at schools

"Tom Edgely, a member of The Nutcracker stage crew, helps tear down pieces of the ballet's set before the lights went off at South Whidbey High School Sunday night.Matt Johnson / staff photoFifteen minutes, everyone! Fifteen minutes!There was a countdown Sunday night at South Whidbey High School. At 4:45 p.m., Charlene Brown had only a quarter of an hour to rush the cast, crew, sets and equipment with this year's production of The Nutcracker packed up and out the door. She yelled out the time every five minutes, because she knew that at 5 p.m., every light in the school was going dark.The lights, heat, and everything else electric shut off at all the big school buildings in the South Whidbey School District on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights as sub-freezing temperatures and a hot electricity market forced Puget Sound Energy to cut power to one of its biggest South Whidbey customers. Karl Kirn, a spokesman for PSE, said Monday that the schools are on a special rate plan that gives them a break on their electricity if the district agrees to have its power cut during periods of extreme peak usage.This week was one of those times. With power generation down at area hydroelectric plants due to a lack of rain and river water and with electric rates rising in neighboring states, PSE is having trouble supplying the Puget Sound area with enough electricity at a reasonable cost.During a typical winter, PSE purchases power from California, which generates more power than it needs. However, cold weather in that state has increased consumer demand.What power is left over is selling for about $700 per megawatt, rather than the usual $20 to $30 per megawatt. Kirn said having schools and other big energy users on PSE's Schedule 43 rate plan makes it possible for the company to conserve electricity and avoid the high cost of purchasing more on the open market.It helps, he said.On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, all four of the school district's major buildings were without electricity during peak use hours, 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. The outages caused some inconveniences, including a hurried Nutcracker cleanup and the postponement until Wednesday of a Tuesday night girls basketball game between South Whidbey and Blaine.Rick Pitt, the school district's facilities manager, said power shutdowns like this are not common, but are not unheard of either. It has been more than six years since the last shutdown, he said, but this may be the year that the district sees it happen more than once.Pitt said the outage did not harm the operation of the schools in any way. To maintain the lines of communication between the schools and the community, the district kept the phone system at Langley Middle School and at the district office running with a generator. Neither Bayview High School nor the bus barn was affected by the power blackout because they are not Schedule 43 buildings.It could be some time before PSE emerges from its electricity shortage. Kirn said the company is hoping for rain, rain that will refill federally-owned hydroelectric reservoirs that have lost up to 66 percent of their water. Nevertheless, fortune is still on the side of electric customers. Kirn said customers on South Whidbey should not see a change in their electric rates because of PSE's recent acquisition of its natural gas subsidiary. To get a stamp of approval for that merger from Washington's Utilities and Trade Commission, it had to agree to a rate freeze. We're still in a rate civility period, Kirn said.South Whidbey residents currently pay 5 cents for every kilowatt hour of energy they use. A kilowatt hour is the equivalent of running a 100-watt lightbulb for 10 hours.In addition to PSE's forced conservation efforts, Gov. Gary Locke is encouraging state residents to conserve electricity during the cold winter months. In a press release Friday that anticipated this week's cold temperatures, Locke asked that Washingtonians conserve electricity by shutting off lights in empty rooms, turning down heaters, using microwave ovens instead of electric stoves, and turning off Christmas lights after 8 p.m. In Olympia, the state government is doing its own bit for conservation, shutting off the Capitol's dome lights and operating Christmas lights only during off-peak hours. "

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