While most of the publicity about West Coast power troubles has centered on California, the problem has affected power users on other parts of the western U.S. grid.
At CNC Containers Corp.'s Tumwater, Wash., plant, for example, diesel-fueled generators now power all operations, following problems in late 2000 that convinced officials to find a rapid alternative to a public utility.
The problem dated back to 1997, when Puget Sound Energy Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., approached large energy users with a plan to move to a nonregulated rate schedule. At the time, the switch was advantageous to both CNC and the utility, but ``nobody anticipated the issues'' soon to emerge, said David Andison, CNC's president and chief operating officer since a Feb. 28 change of ownership.
The California situation affected all Western grid generators and, starting in May 2000, wholesale prices were driven skyward. Rates that had averaged $50 per megawatt hour reached a maximum in December, he said.
``We were seeing $1,000 during that period of time,'' he added.
Unable to cover costs, CNC managers scrambled for a short-term remedy.
For a while, the plant operated in line with the wholesale price of the moment.
``When the price was high, they shut the plant. When it was low, they would start up,'' he said.
The idea of self-generating power surfaced in November. By year's end and with a state permit, CNC leased and installed nine diesel-powered generators for operation in substation banks of two. It was not an easy transition, Andison said.
At times, ``electricians and mechanics and operators were paying attention to generators and not to regular equipment,'' he said. Preventive maintenance lagged and, occasionally, breakdowns halted plastics processing.
Power was lost during a late June meeting, Andison recalled. The lights went out, injection molding resin solidified and blow molding machines stopped. The culprit: a late diesel-fuel delivery.
In May, the state required CNC to obtain new permits along with higher-efficiency generators and new air scrubbers. Nine generators feed one high-voltage line that is stepped down for plant use. One generator can go offline for maintenance without bringing down a part of the plant, he said.
CNC spends about $200,000 per month to lease the generators and, daily, uses about 1,400 gallons of diesel fuel. Buying and installing new scrubbers cost $1.2 million.
The Tumwater plant employs 250, occupies about 425,000 square feet and molds PET bottles and preforms for the soft drink, water and dairy markets.
CNC's speed of reaction and effort to overcome a long learning curve impressed Andison.
``The local plant and team at CNC reacted quickly'' to near-devastating energy-rate spikes, Andison said in a telephone interview from the Mississauga, Ontario, office of Montreal-based parent company Amcor Twinpak-North America Inc.
CNC also has plants in Commerce and Lathrop, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz. Lathrop had rolling blackouts in the spring, and Commerce was affected multiple times before the company ended an interruptible-rate program in May.