Rolling power outages hit Silicon Valley

Network administrators can try to compensate for about a million things going wrong during a Web-cast presentation, but when Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. in California turns off the power in the auditorium, there’s only so much to be done except groan, maybe chuckle a little, and wait.

The rolling power outage halting the Sun Microsystems Inc. presentation in a San Francisco hotel for about 10 minutes Wednesday reflects the potential for California’s power problems to affect business in the information economy’s capitol city.

Rolling blackouts may continue Thursday in Northern California, said Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for PG&E. “Right now we don’t know. So far, what they’ve told us is that we’re in a similar situation as we were in yesterday,” he said.

Governor Gray Davis declared a stage three state of emergency at 1:45 a.m. Wednesday, prompting the California Independent System Operator – the state’s power management agency – to order rotating customer outages beginning that afternoon. The blackouts affected the entire Northern part of the state, impacting most directly 221,000 customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, he said. Rolling blackouts began around 11:50 a.m. PST and ended around 2:30 p.m., he said

The highest probability time for outages occur between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. he said. Internet companies will not be given special dispensations or warnings if blackouts are ordered again. “The only customers that are spared are emergency services, large acute hospitals, and public transportation,” said Franks. Average outages lasted 90 minutes.

Some companies are using the power outages as a selling point for their products and services.

Sunnyvale, California-based IT infrastructure service company Loudcloud Inc. announced that corporations outsourcing their Internet operations to Loudcloud won’t be affected by the rolling blackouts. As part of its disaster recovery plan, Loudcloud’s network operations center is equipped with a backup battery and a diesel generator.

Many of the larger power-dependant companies have invested in back-up generators, Franks said.

Sun Microsystems president Ed Zander used the blackout to tout the low power consumption of his company’s servers, equating the power use to that of a lightbulb. “We have to drive power consumption down to the lowest level we can,” he said.

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