Coping with higher power costs

After a new round of rolling blackouts, California broadcasters are facing a second major threat to power supplies: the cost.

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on March 27 approved the largest rate increase in the state's history: 3 cents per kilowatt hour, at least 40%. This follows an increase of 1 cent per kWh, about 7%, in January. And more increases are expected.

"Our utility bills have tripled and continue to grow," says Phyllis Schwartz, president and general manager of KNSD-TV San Diego. "We have executed many energy-saving ideas around our station, but it could never get us back to square one in terms of cost."

Concurring, Cherie Erwin, owner of low-power KSSY-TV Arroyo Grande, Calif., notes, "I'm now scrambling to find other sources and/or methods to deal with this incredibly ridiculous state of affairs brought on by the total mismanagement of California's power needs."

Many other stations in the state rely at least in part on municipal power and will not be hit as hard as others. Jack Davis, chief engineer at KTXL-TV Sacramento, feels relatively fortunate with an increase of just 16%. "We're looking at a minimum of $5,000 a month extra in power between the DTV transmitter, the analog transmitter and the building."

The January rate increase, along with cold weather, raised the February electric bill by more than $2,000 just for the transmitter at KVEA-TV Glendale, according to Director of Engineering Richard Lahti. Municipal power supplies the station, but Southern California Edison powers a transmitter on Mount Wilson, the antenna site for most Los Angeles stations.

The rate increase came a week after a second wave of rolling blackouts affecting most of the state. Earlier blackouts had been limited to Northern California.

With backup generators to protect them, a few television stations, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, were affected only briefly by the first blackouts early in the year, according to Mark Powers, who works in governmental affairs for the California Broadcasters Association.

In March, however, KADY-TV Oxnard was off the air an hour and seven minutes, according to General Manager Dan Akens. In addition, the outage ruined the station's phone system for more than 24 hours.

Some stations, however, have managed to stay on-air through the worst power shortages in state history. "We've had rolling blackouts in our area, but we've dodged the bullet so far," says KTXL-TV's Davis. The station's transmitter site is shared with other stations in the Sacramento area and has escaped blackouts so far.

The two biggest multiple-antenna locations in the state, Sutro Tower near San Francisco and Mount Wilson near Los Angeles, have also escaped blackouts to date. That's because the PUC exempts critical facilities such as hospitals, telephone systems and emergency services—including stations participating in the Emergency Alert System—from blackouts.

"However, if the utilities know that they have backup generators, even hospitals are at risk," says Powers. "We have encouraged stations to work with their utility to explain that if they go down and an emergency occurs, people may be slow in getting information on the crisis."

Although most stations have backup generators, the latest power problems are leading some to make improvements. For example, KVEA-TV is installing a new generator at its transmitter site near Los Angeles.

At KTVU-TV San Francisco, Director of Engineering Ken Manley uses generators ranging from 2500 W for a radio repeater to 350 kW for studio equipment. "We also have appropriate UPS units that supply power during the time interval from when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. goes away until the diesel generator starts, stabilizes and switches online."

Richard A. Swank, vice president of engineering for KNTV-TV and KBWB-TV San Francisco, reports, "I've used Caterpillar, Kohler and Onan generators, and they all provided good service with proper maintenance." If interruptions continue, however, he would consider more uninterruptible power supply (UPS) protection at the studio. "For our UPS system, I've used both Ferrups and Best with success."

Says Adam Perez, chief engineer at KION-TV Salinas, "We're going to have to have a heightened awareness of our generator maintenance." Even before the rate increases, he had calculated that if it weren't for pollution restrictions, it would be more cost-efficient to run a transmitter site from a diesel generator.

KBAK-TV Bakersfield Chief Engineer Phil Dutton has another strategy to save money: "We're going to look at a new transmitter."

At KTXL-TV, Davis had hoped to wait for the DTV transition to replace transmitters, but the rate increase "certainly starts to lead us in another direction."

Rates are growing to the point where stations might reconsider alternative energy sources. Even Swank says, "A couple of wind generators on a mountaintop might pay for themselves over time at a transmitter site."