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Silicon Valley sweats as heat wave threatens power supply

Technology workers responsible for keeping the new economy humming will be sweating this week as a heat wave threatens to cut off the lifeblood of Silicon Valley.

SAN FRANCISCO--Technology workers responsible for keeping the new economy humming will be sweating this week as a heat wave threatens to cut off the lifeblood of Silicon Valley.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO) issued a warning Friday that high electricity demand statewide is likely to cause rolling power outages until Thursday, when a cool front is expected to relieve record temperatures in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Typically foggy and cool, San Francisco reached an uncharacteristically sweltering 92 degrees yesterday. Temperatures in Silicon Valley, about 30 miles to the south, were a few degrees higher, and the mercury in several cities to the east is expected to top 100 degrees this week.

ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle said today that the region is likely to experience the year's first stage-three energy emergency this week, causing power to shut off in "rotating blackouts."

Typically, businesses and residential consumers get no warning before power is turned off in a stage-three emergency. "At the most," McCorkle said, "there could be up to a half-hour notice."

That means that technology companies ranging from San Francisco Internet start-ups to Silicon Valley powerhouses could go dark without warning. Although costs vary, rolling blackouts in June cost tech companies anywhere from $1 million per hour to $1 million per second in lost revenue, according to the 175-member trade association Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.

To avoid such outages, Oracle spent more than $6 million to build its own substation and generators to supply energy to its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters.

Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is bracing for a call today from its energy provider. Intel, which designs and manufactures computer components such as microprocessors and chipsets, is one of hundreds of local companies that voluntarily reduces energy conservation to its 5,000 Santa Clara-based employees on hot days in exchange for discounted service.

During several stage-two emergencies throughout the summer, Intel reduced lighting in more than 1 million square feet of office space in Santa Clara by 50 percent. The company also turned its air conditioning thermostats up two or three degrees, resulting in significant savings.

"The only thing we don't do is curtail operations at our wafer fabrication facility on site," Mulloy said. "If we were to lose power to that fab, it would take a day or so to take it back up to speed; but an emergency backup runs the safety system. The area that we focus on is the area we can control: the office space."

Intel employees are probably used to romantically dim lighting in their cubicles: California has had 28 stage-one and 16 stage-two rotating blackouts this year. Last year, the state had four stage ones and only one stage two.

But employees may face even more dramatic mood lighting this week. Although previous heat waves in May and June affected the Bay Area or all of Northern California, the current scorcher is baking all of California and several other western states.

And late-summer heat waves are usually more dangerous than particularly warm spring thaws. By September, California's hydroelectric power plants have typically used up much of their water reserves, making it more difficult to generate extra electricity.

In addition, extremely dry conditions in the grasslands and mountains of Northern California, combined with a hot breeze from the Sierra Mountains, have resulted in a "red flag warning" for the California Department of Forestry crews.

A seven-alarm wildfire fanned by hot winds tore through two homes just north of San Francisco over the weekend, at the beginning of the heat wave.

The fires and power draught have been top stories in local newspapers and on the evening news. California has absorbed 580,000 new residents in the past year, resulting in a severe housing and energy crunch.

Ron Low, a spokesman for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric, said the company's 4.6 million customers are used to stage-one and stage-two drills, but he says they all need reminders: Turn the lights and computers off when you're not using them, and turn up the air conditioner a few degrees.

"We think that customers are receptive to the message, and they know this is a supply-and-demand situation," Low said. "Supply vs. demand is tight. We're very appreciative of our customers conserving energy where possible; even little things can help."