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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Energy Costs Raise Concern at Port Sites

Produce: Operators of huge refrigerated fruit warehouses brace for the impact of expected high summer bills and extended blackouts.

April 19, 2001|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With refrigerated warehouses the size of two football fields, one company at the Port of Hueneme is bracing for some of the highest energy bills in the region during peak summer months.

But energy costs aren't the only worry for company officials. They are also concerned about the impact of extended blackouts on the more than 100,000 cartons of fruit that move through the port on any given day.

"We hope we're not looking at a summer of headaches," said Mike Karmelich, president of LauritzenCool USA, operator of two refrigerated warehouses--totaling 142,000 square feet--at the port.

The company's $300,000 annual electricity bill could increase 50%. That cost could be passed on to shippers--such as Sunkist--and eventually to consumers.

"I would suspect we could see some higher costs," Karmelich said. "The logic is right on."

The port is home to two refrigerated terminals--run by LauritzenCool and Del Monte--where imported bananas stay for hours or days before heading to retailers around the region and where local citrus waits for a ship to Japan.

The companies are responsible for their energy bills.

And officials say the cost of cooling 142,000 square feet, enough space for about 250,000 cartons of fruit, is significant.

Karmelich said two-hour blackouts would probably not cause a significant problem for his fruit but he fears the outages could jack up his bills even more. If there are blackouts, it requires quite a bit of energy to get the cold-storage units going again, he said.

Edison tacks on a surcharge based on peak use during critical periods. If Karmelich had to restart the refrigerator, he said, that might establish a surcharge and it "could be nasty."

"I don't expect anything catastrophic like losing a warehouse of fruit," he said. "The thing we have to be is conscious of the cost."

Bill Buenger, the port's executive director, said the port is working with Southern California Edison on an agreement to warn of impending blackouts and allow time for cooler operators to shut them down appropriately.

Another concern is the huge stadium-like lights sometimes used for unloading ships after dark. However, the port isn't planning to bring in its own generators, which Buenger called economically unfeasible.

Although higher electrical charges haven't caught up with the port yet, Buenger said he fears a retroactive bill with an increase of as much as 40%.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist," he said. "Some place down the road, we may have to raise some rates. We're not in the business of throwing money away."

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