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The Heat's on the Power Grid

June 16, 2000

California's electric utilities can still meet consumer demand most of the time, but when a 100-degree-plus heat wave rolls in, as it did in the Bay Area this week, the lights start to go out. Asking consumers to conserve energy in peak hours and offering incentives to do so work only up to a point. In the long run, with California anticipating a chronic power shortfall, utilities will have to increase generation capacity and beef up the distribution system. Conservation, the promotion of clean energy generation and the use of new technologies to generate electricity locally also must play a key role.

Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power, which has capacity to spare and earned a handsome profit selling to private investor-owned utilities in the north, expects no power shortages this summer.

California has long been at the front of the pack in electricity conservation. The 3% "public goods" charge added to each user's monthly electricity bill to fund conservation has saved the state's economy billions of dollars since it was put in place in 1977. But with the price of electricity falling in recent years conservation has slipped. That could be costly.

Already the state power grid, while sufficient for normal summer weather, cannot handle soaring demand on unusually hot days. Voluntary cutbacks by industrial users during peak hours help but are not nearly enough. With the economy growing and population on the rise, demand for electricity is expected to outpace supply by as much as 10,000 megawatts a year by 2005, nearly one-quarter of this year's anticipated statewide demand of 46,000 megawatts.

Conservation--through the use of more energy-efficient appliances or better insulation--along with clean generating technology, should remain the first line in meeting growing energy demands. New, highly efficient technologies, such as fuel cells or micro-turbines, can be installed in buildings and plants to ease demand on increasingly stressed power lines. However, old-style power plant generation and upgrades of the distribution system cannot be avoided this time around.

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