By: Randy Dotinga

‘Absolute Disaster’ In Orange County

San Diego – It seemed like a good idea at the time. Back in
1995, The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.,
learned it could save a bundle on utility bills if it agreed to
turn its power off during electricity crises, which then were
very rare. The Register signed on.

Now, amid California’s energy meltdown, officials at the nation’s
28th-largest newspaper are wishing they’d pulled the plug. The
electricity deal may cost the Register hundreds of
thousands of dollars, said Facilities Director Tom Grochow, and
the paper can’t get out of it. “This is an absolute disaster.”

Southern California Edison asked the Register to cut its
power 17 times last year and 12 times this month, compared with
only twice in 1999, Grochow said. While the Register cut
the juice to air-conditioning units and six of seven elevators,
the newspaper can’t function with all the power off.

So the Register has to pay huge penalties – 100 times
the normal billing rate – for the electricity it does use
when it’s told to shut down, Grochow said. The Register
may buy a generator system, but it could take weeks to renovate
its six-story building’s electrical system.

A few miles away, the Los Angeles Times is suffering from
similar problems. Its two plants in Los Angeles are largely
protected from outages because the city has its own municipal
power utility, which is financially healthy.

But its Orange County plant, in Costa Mesa, has a power-cutting
agreement similar to that of the Register. Luckily, the
Times has backup generators that power the plant during
outages, said spokesman David Garcia.

In the Southern California city of Riverside, a municipal utility
has protected The Press-Enterprise from price hikes. But
outages are still a possibility. The newspaper has distributed
flashlights and employees know to evacuate if the power goes out,
said Editor and Publisher Marcia McQuern.

Northern California’s big dailies, most with backup generators,
have largely been spared from blackouts, though at least two
papers – the San Francisco Chronicle and The
Fresno Bee – were hit by outages.

Randy Dotinga is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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