Calif. Stations Dodge Blackouts

LOS ANGELES Hoping to avoid the California "blackout bug" for the rest of the summer, broadcasters here have readied auxiliary power plans and even lobbied state government to spare themselves the most painful aspects of this summer’s energy crisis.
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Radio Managers in Western States Face Staggering Power Bills and Are Forced to Conserve

LOS ANGELES Hoping to avoid the California "blackout bug" for the rest of the summer, broadcasters here have readied auxiliary power plans and even lobbied state government to spare themselves the most painful aspects of this summer’s energy crisis.

Most experts contacted by Radio World said the impact of the energy squeeze on broadcasters has been minimal. However, with the reliable, consistent and affordable delivery of electricity vital to studios and remote transmitter sites, the threat of additional "rolling blackouts" this summer remained a concern, especially with the state’s public utilities struggling to meet the growing summertime demand.

The crisis also has raised longer-term questions for broadcasters about the availability of reliable power.

California’s recent measures are meant to conserve power when energy usage is highest to prevent unexpected shortages. The California Independent Systems Operator, a nonprofit agency that manages the state electrical grid, predicted more than 30 days of rolling blackouts through this summer.

Skyrocketing costs

Even those broadcasters lucky enough to avoid blackouts are paying a price.

Skyrocketing energy costs have cut into station profits. Some broadcasters have seen their energy bills nearly double this year, said Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Association.

Statham said most broadcasters have received exempt status from planned outages from the California Public Utilities Commission. The state’s energy blueprint allows some customers to be classified as "essential customers," not subject to the blackouts.

Along with broadcasters, emergency service agencies, hospitals and telephone system operators are exempt. Only eligible for the special exemptions are customers of the state’s three largest utilities: Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, "Any customer who can demonstrate clearly that rotating power outages are likely to pose a significant threat to public health or safety" can apply. The deadline for applying was in June.

However, Statham said the exemption is not necessarily a guarantee broadcasters will stay online.

"We have heard of a broadcaster backlash of sorts. The utilities figure if you have a generator, then you are a candidate for a blackout."

He said California Gov. Gray Davis proposed a bill that would reimburse broadcasters for any cost associated with running their backup generators.

Statham said many radio stations in his state began preparing for potential power problems early this year after forecasts by state utilities predicted summer shortages were inevitable.

Scott Petersen, chief engineer for Regent Communications’ four station group in Chico, Calif., said several of his stations have experienced several days of short outages since April, but thanks to propane generators, the stations lost minimal airtime.

"Radio stations live on electricity. That is what we are. The availability of power is critical. You can sometimes forget that until you go without," Petersen said.

Maintain generators

Testing of generators is the most important part of any backup power plan, Petersen said.

"I’ve been let down because of a simple bad battery. Maintenance is the key. Keep them running, or be forced to buy a new one in a pinch."

Petersen said sometimes a $20,000 generator in the engineering budget "can look excessive" to station management.

Several engineering sources estimated the cost of a 60-kW diesel generator at $15,000 and up. Propane generators typically are a bit less expensive. Add to that another $3,000 for the cost of transferring from one power source to another, they said.

Jim Balcom, chief engineer for KYMX(FM) and KZZO(FM) in Sacramento, said his station prep included making sure uninterruptible power supplies on critical computers were up and functioning.

"In particular for on-air studios and traffic departments. Since the whole building is not on the diesel generator, a lot of the office stuff will go dead," Balcom said. "In addition, the microwave room and rack room are online if the power quits."

Neither station has had power interrupted, but they are prepared, Balcom said. "We have 300-gallon diesel tanks and generators at the studios and two transmitter sites, so we could run almost four days without refueling if need be."

Balcom said that, depending on the utility company, some stations are better off than others. "Fortunately, we are not a part of a large utility like PG&E or Edison. They are the ones with the most problems," he said.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District supplies power to Infinity Broadcasting’s Sacramento group.

The Sutro Tower near San Francisco and Mount Wilson near Los Angeles are the two largest multiple-antenna locations in the state. Neither of the sites has suffered power interruptions, said Mark Powers, spokesman for the California Broadcasters Association.

San Francisco AM stations KGO, KSFO and KMKY use the Sutro site as a relay point for their two-way radio systems, said Art Lebermann, chief transmitter engineer for the ABC Radio trio.

Power disruptions

Lebermann said the three stations’ transmitter sites around the Bay Area have seen several disruptions in power since April.

"We have focused great attention on our remote transmitter sites, which run the same risk as on-air studios of being targeted for a rolling blackout," he said.

Along with worrying about power shutdowns, engineers have noticed minor fluctuations in service, Lebermann said.

"All modern designs are well-protected with overload monitor circuits. We run all other critical equipment, like remote control and STL receivers with small UPS units just in case," he said.

Lebermann, who also is chairman for the Bay Area’s SBE chapter 40, said California’s experience with natural disasters, including earthquakes, has meant broadcasters were better-prepared for this summer’s scheduled power outages.

"Broadcasters, particularly in the Bay Area, have learned valuable lessons from earthquakes, ‘Be prepared no matter the cost,’" he said. "That means monthly testing of generators and UPS on all critical computers as a necessity to maintaining business as usual."

Chief engineers interviewed for this story all agreed on one thing – power conservation is critical. Most said the current power crisis in California will not immediately cause long-term planning for additional facilities. They point out that broadcasters, unlike those in the manufacturing sector, cannot simply move to another state with a cheaper and more dependable power supply.

"We have tried to tell people to turn off computers and monitors when they are not needed. We have cut back on the lighting a bit. We try to power down as many things as we can when we can," Lebermann said.

Sandy Gamblin, Clear Channel Communications/Bakersfield general manager, said his company’s electric bill is nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago.

"It’s a big number. You can’t do without it though. Long-term, it’s a major concern," Gamblin said.

"We have seen our bills climb an average of 30 percent," said Mary Lou Gunn, Clear Channel Communications/Fresno market manager. "It’s hard to conserve when it’s 110 in Fresno. You try to keep your people and equipment cool," she said.

Gunn said her typical monthly energy bill for the group’s seven stations has increased by "thousands of dollars a month. And we expect rates to go higher still."

Mike Glickenhaus, Clear Channel Communications/San Diego market manager, said his group’s move earlier this summer into a new, "energy-friendly" facility should help to reduce the cost of running seven radio stations.

"Before the move-in, I’d say we were averaging electricity bills 20 to 40 percent higher than last year at the old locations," Glickenhaus said.

"There are a few things we can do with the new building that should lower the bill a bit."

The California Broadcasters Association is asking its members, 105 television stations and 653 radio stations, to send in copies of their electric bills from June 2000 and June 2001 to allow the association a chance to examine the differences.

Serious issue

"We already have engineers predicting huge increases. It is really frightening. We are taking it very seriously," Statham said.

Statham said several stations have showed interest in selling back excess electricity to the utilities during rolling blackouts if they persist.

"If we have broadcasters generating electricity during a blackout and they produce more than they can use, they can in theory sell it back to the energy companies," he said. The idea was discussed at the California Broadcasters Association annual convention in June.

California is not alone with its concerns over the nation’s power grid.

"We are looking at ways for broadcasters to cut energy consumption and costs," said Mark Allen, president and CEO for the Washington State Association of Broadcasters, which represents nearly 60 radio broadcasters with more than 200 stations in the state.

"The Pacific Northwest has always been very conscious of the environment. To the extent they can, broadcasters are willing to make efforts to conserve. Conservation is the rule of thumb," Allen said.

Washington state broadcasters are running public service announcements and offering tips on how to conserve as well, Allen said.

Several broadcast engineers in electricity-starved California said the energy crisis may have one added benefit – managers are now aware exactly what condition auxiliary power generating systems are in.

"Let’s face it. A diesel generator can costs thousands of dollars, yet you hope you never have to use it. But now at least we have been put under some pressure to be better-prepared," one engineer said.

Lebermann pointed to the benefits of new and more efficient transmitters, in particular replacing old tube-type transmitters with solid-state. They are vastly more energy efficient, he said.

"In a sense, rather than the power crisis causing people to defer investment, which may be true in some other industries, this in fact may encourage broadcasters to invest in new, more efficient equipment for their facilities," Lebermann said.

As of late June, California had experienced six days of rotating power outages since the beginning of the year, according to California’s Public Utilities Commission. Most lasted approximately one hour and affected different parts of the state. The California Independent System Operator resorts to rolling blackouts only after the state’s electricity reserves fall below 1.5 percent.

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