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Officials Seek Ways to Slash Energy Costs

Government offices are upgrading lighting and adjusting thermostats. A consultant advises the county to buy its own power outside Gov. Davis' purchase plan.

April 01, 2001|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With Orange County government's power bill expected to increase 40% or more, officials have been urged to look for ways to slash costs, including alternative work schedules for the county's 15,000 workers and generating its own energy.

As a major energy user, the county paid $12 million over the last year for lights, air conditioning and heating at more than 220 buildings. With power costs rising, the $13.4 million budgeted for next year's energy costs might not be enough, according to a new report by Complete Energy Inc., a Riverside-based consultant.

The report recommends that the county explore buying its own power directly from suppliers, even though the county is among the state's largest electricity users and remains tied to Gov. Gray Davis' plan to purchase power.

To accomplish that, said Robert Boehme, the county's facilities operation chief, the county is already sponsoring legislation to soften Davis' proposed emergency purchasing plan to allow the county to independently buy power from sources other than Southern California Edison.

"The governor is tying the state's large users in with legislation to buy power for a long period of time. If this is softened or changed, the county might pay a little bit more, but you would at least get a fixed figure for budgeting purposes and have cost containment."

Boehme's boss, Vicki L. Wilson, Public Facilities and Resources Department, is scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors at Tuesday's meeting and seek approval for the recommendations, which also are part of the county's new strategic energy plan.

"We're trying to cope with the immediate short-term energy crisis," said Wilson, adding that some of the consultant's recommendations would be implemented.

In the immediate future, the county will be providing electrical generation at critical facilities, Wilson said. That includes Building 12 in the Civic Center complex, which houses the offices of the county recorder, treasurer-tax collector and auditor controller, and operations affecting tens of thousands of residents.

Supervisors have already instructed public facilities to reduce energy use by 5% to 10%.

So far, 25 buildings have been audited for energy consumption as part of the goal to audit all major county facilities, some 10 million square feet of office space.

At the offices of public facilities, new conservation methods have been employed, such as upgrading lighting systems, dimming or turning off lights altogether when feasible, and adjusting thermostats to turn on heat when the temperature falls below 68 degrees and cooling when it rises to 74 degrees.

"I'm sitting here right now with no lights, my window shades fully open using natural light," Boehme said. "If you go into a variety of county buildings you'll see where we've made lighting retrofits, that is, gone to a more efficient system that can save 30% to 35%."

In addition, the county will investigate using microturbines to help reduce electricity use during peak energy periods and explore whether the state will allow the 9 1/2 megawatts now produced at the county's landfills by converting methane to electricity, to serve as energy credits.

Microturbines, though expensive, are small jet engines powered by natural gas. In contrast to the county's dozens of diesel-powered generators for use as backup electrical sources in rolling blackouts or emergencies, turbines have little or no emissions.

Boehme said the generators were installed as the buildings were constructed decades ago when diesel was much cheaper.

Currently, two of the county's landfills recover methane from compacted trash, convert it to electricity and sell it to Edison's grid. One megawatt can power about 1,000 homes.

Instead of selling it, the county may negotiate with Edison for credits that can reduce the county's electrical costs.

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