The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed three power plant operators, and their responses add more controversy to the claims that large power companies have been gouging California consumers.
The California field poll found only 36 percent think the current power crisis is real, which is compared to the 59 percent of people who believe it was staged by the power companies.
Industry insiders said big out-of-state power companies have been ramping the output of their power plants to "game" the market. The latest charges that power companies manipulated California's electricity market came from an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Chronicle interviewed three power plant operators, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs. Their responses add more controversy to the claims that large power companies have been gouging California consumers. "The generators have been gaming the system, shutting down plants to lessen supply and increase costs," said President of Pro Tempore John Burton. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted one operator as saying "they told us what to do, and we did it." Another operator said "afterward, we would just sit there and watch the market change."
The power plant operators all work at a Riverside County power plant owned by Reliant Energy, which is one of California's largest and most profitable out-of-state generators, based in Houston.
The three operators said the orders last spring to reduce power output at the plant came from the people who control trading room floors of their corporate headquarters in Texas, rather than the power gird managers in California.
The operators said operations schedulers on Reliant Energy's trading floor ordered them to repeatedly decrease, then increase output at the power plant as many as four or five times an hour. Each time the units were ramped down and electricity production fell, plant employees watched from a control room computer screen as spot market energy prices rose. The workers and state power authorities said ''ramping'' was one of the primary means of gaming the wholesale energy market. One operator told the Chronicle that if spot market prices were satisfactory, generators would keep output at high levels. At other times when the price was low, plant output was brought down and kept down. ''What they would do, especially late at night,'' said one operator. ''Is if the price tanked, they would undergenerate, then mysteriously the price would go up.''
Reliant Energy officials categorically deny any allegations of market manipulation. "We're doing everything we can to keep the lights on in California," said Reliant Energy spokesman Richard Wheatley.
"Now the allegations of withholding really don't make a lot of sense," he added. "We run our plants at record levels since we acquired them in 1998."Power experts at the I.S.O. said the practice of ramping will tear a power plant apart, and they are not designed for stop and go operations like that.
Reliant Energy reported 319 power plant shutdowns during a 40-day period in March and April -- depriving the electric grid of enough power to light up 53 million homes for one hour. Reliant said its plants are old and there are valid reasons that they are in need of repair.