Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg

Energy Research


"Advanced Switches for Soft Blackouts, Critical Infrastructure Protection, Unanticipated Discovery of Emergency Voltage Reduction for Grid Protection,"  

California Energy Commission   Final Report   CEC-500-2006-058    2006
By Dr. Willard H. Wattenburg
March 30,  2005

Posted at:


This scientific report  presents the results of  the extensive voltage reduction  (VR)  experiments conducted by  a technical group working with Dr. Bill Wattenburg in the PG&E San Ramon Technology Center during the California energy crisis in 2001.  The report includes all internal correspondence from supportive (at the time)  California Energy  Commission officials and the governor's office.  The report documents how the utilities changed their minds as soon as the energy crisis was over.   

See Appendix IV of this report for the experimental data that verifies that large amounts of  energy can be saved  by lowering customer  voltages below the standard 120+  volts.  These easily reproduced experiments  demonstrate the enormous amount of  energy wasted by modern air conditioners operating at  240 volts.   The test data presented in the report  demonstrates  that modern home air conditioners are  most efficient at  210 volts.   (The air conditioner  experimental data was  independently verified in 2005 by  University of California, Davis, scientists working with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District  -- SMUD.)

This official report also contains the  experimental results of the Truck Stopping project  and the Truck Bomber Barrier.


This is the California Energy Commission (CEC)  technical report filed by  Dr. Bill Wattenburg in March 2005.   The major California utilities  had  previously attempted to squash the main voltage reduction conclusions  of this report  in proceedings before the California Public Utilities Commission in 2001-2002.    Then CEC staff members  refused to publish this report for over a year.   Among other things, they  tried to do the handiwork for the utilities by insisting that the entire section on Voltage Reduction , Appendix IV,   be  removed because they claimed "it was not within the scope of the contract work. "   The CEC  finally published this report without change  in June 2006 after they were challenged with legal action for attempting to falsify a scientific report which  was paid for and is the property of the State of California.   

*Dr Willard H. (Bill)  Wattenburg is a senior research scientist at the Research Foundation, California State University, Chico; and a scientific consultant for the University of California Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and many other institutions. He is a former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; a former member of the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board; and a former UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering.  He is also the host of the very popular radio talk show,  “The Open Line to the West Coast,” KGO Radio AM810, ABC Network, San Francisco (six hours per week since 1972, Saturday and Sunday nights 10pm to 1am).  This is the most listened to night-time radio talk show in eleven western states in that time slot.
Scientific Work and Background at www.drbill.org      Email at: wattenburg@aol.com
Radio at  http://www.kgoam810.com/ComplexPersonalities.asp
He can be contacted at  the ABC West Coast Broadcast Center  415-954-8607 or
at the U.C. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at  925-422-5153

October 23, 2004
From: Bill Wattenburg
Explanation  of the EXCEL graphs of voltage reduction and performance data:

EXCEL Graph 1, dated 6-16-01, shows  typical home appliance and commercial motor  performance over a range of voltages lower than the nominal 120/240.   Note that the power factor improves with voltage reduction as far down as 210 volts (105 volt equivalent) for motors and air conditioners. Click the buttons at the bottom of the Excel sheet to see the various devices tested.

EXCEL Graph 2, dated 7-24-01, shows overall air conditioner performance as  BTU output per Kwhr used.   All relevant parameters were measured as shown in the table at the top. The test data show that for the most popular  new air conditioner units commonly operated at 240 volt all over the U.S., the best efficiency (EER) is between 200 and  210 volts! And the best power factor is when the units are operated at voltages between 180 and 200 volts. The EER at 180 volts is about as good as at 200 volts. This was a shocker.

In Graph 2, compare the power consumed and cooling rates for 200 volts versus 240 volts (last five columns in the top table). Operation at 200 volts results in a drop in power consumed by 7% with a drop in cooling capacity of only 3%. This means that a tremendous amount of energy is being wasted by air conditioners powered at 240 volts at the worst possible times in the U.S. when the biggest load on electrical grids consists of air conditioners running on hot summer days. The most important thing about using emergency voltage reduction is that there is no problem whatsoever as far as the performance of air conditioners operated at voltages such as 220 volts or lower. The air conditioner motors (and all commercial motors) actually perform better and run cooler at the lower voltages (higher power factors and less energy wasted).

       The reason for this is that manufacturers still design almost all appliances, motors,  and lighting to operate all over the world where  voltages range 20% below the American standard of 120/240.   When motors are designed for a particular voltage, say, 200 volts, they will typically operate less efficiently at unnecessarily higher voltages.
And, contrary to the myths about high currents in motors run at lower voltages, the current increase is minimal when the voltage is dropped to the best power factor. 

Since Power = V x I (cosine PF) for motors,  the percentage current increase is limited  to less than the percentage voltage decrease when the power factor increases with lowered voltage. Manufacturer's specifications show this (in small type).  We questioned many major   manufacturers who didn't want to discuss the test results.   They know that their motors are being run at unnecessarily high voltages in the U.S. The fluorescent lighting manufacturers were the most reluctant, with a lot of arm waving about possible but unproven  damage to their bulbs.  In Graph 1, notice that 277 volt commercial fluorescents do quite well at 200 volts.  It turns out that they sell the same bulbs for 220-240 systems as they do for 277 systems -- all over the world! 

    During the severe energy crisis in California in May - June 2001, we realized that we could safely drop the line voltages 3% to 6% in the state and avoid many blackouts because this would reduce demand on the grid by at least 500 megawatts. The governor proposed to do just that on July 3, 2001. He requested the state PUC to make new rules for the utilities to reduce voltages by at least 3% in emergencies.   The three major California utilities had agreed to reduce voltages by no more than 2 % (or no lower than 117 volts) to avoid the next blackout.

       I suspected (and predicted in memos to the California Energy Commission and the Governor of California) that the energy suppliers would want no part of state mandated lowering of voltage -- even for emergencies that would otherwise cause blackouts.   The utilities would fear that it would  catch on all over the country.   The extra 10 volts that the utilities are delivering only spins everyone’s power meter faster and increases power bills. This is clean profit that the utilities and the power providers would not want to lose long term.   This would be a direct hit to their profit that could continue long after the crisis was over when people realized that it made no difference other than their meters would not spin so fast.

       It is interesting to note that the energy crisis and rolling blackouts in California  disappeared on July 7, 2001 --- just four days after the Governor announced that he wanted statewide voltage reduction to be used in the next emergency. Suddenly there was abundant energy offered to the state at normal prices thereafter without exception during each peak demand time during the rest of 2001. The average price for power plummeted for the rest of the summer. In fact, after July 7, 2001, there was at least 1000 megawatts available beyond peak demand at all times for the rest of the summer.   
       There is an interesting history to the way that standard voltages have been raised from the old 110-volt days that most remember prior to 1975.   The argument was that voltages should be raised to 115, then 117, and finally 120+ at substations  to guarantee at least 110 volts to all the poor folks at the end of the power lines.  Of course, this meant that all customers close to the substations would have their meters running faster than necessary -- and bigger bills.  If their machines and appliances operated at peak efficiency at the higher voltages,  it would make little difference.  But that is not the case.  Extensive tests have shown that almost every home appliance and/or commercial device operates more efficiently at 110 volts than at 120+.

I supported the  increase to 120 volts  before the California PUC in the early 70's because it would also give the utilities a bigger cushion for line voltage swings in emergencies without noticeable brownouts or  blackouts.   But I knew for sure what the utilities would do as soon as they got permission to raise substation voltages.    They quickly installed larger conductors everywhere and trimmed up their lines with capacitors and adjusted distribution transformers to stabilize voltages at the end of the lines so that everyone  was getting full voltage ---  and spin everyone's meter faster.  Higher voltages have given the utilities a clean 3% profit ever since.  And I don't argue with that --- so long  as they don't punish all customers and ratepayers during emergencies by insisting on blackouts instead of dropping voltages a bit when they know they can it with no danger or loss of service whatsoever.   

Rolling blackouts are currently the response being taken during Stage 3 power emergencies. These blackouts are expensive, disruptive, and pose risks to public safety and health. Residential 240-volt load accounts for almost 20% of California’s peak demand, or about 10,000 MW.

Development and implementation of control technologies for rolling “soft” blackouts, that is, blackouts affecting only residential 240-volt load, would alleviate many of the seriously negative aspects of total blackouts. In addition, by reducing peak demand, considerable savings could accrue for the cost of electricity purchases.

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