Concerned about harmful diesel emissions, Ventura County supervisors directed their staff members Tuesday to explore alternative energy sources before plunking down $4 million to purchase new emergency generators for the Government Center.
In a move prompted by Supervisor Steve Bennett, the board decided to hold off on approving the purchase of super-sized emergency generators that could pump power to the Government Center during mandated blackouts brought on by the state's energy crisis.
The board's decision followed a two-hour study session on California's power crunch and its impact on the county. Addressing the supervisors were nearly a dozen representatives from state and local agencies, including Southern California Edison, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and Southern California Gas Co.
No action was taken at the hearing, intended to update supervisors on the power shortage and stir discussion on what alternatives are available to protect the county from outages.
Supervisor Kathy Long called the session helpful and said she was inspired to push a resolution at next week's meeting, promising to reduce the county's electricity demand by at least 7%.
Conservation will be a key way to immediately ease the burdens on electricity providers, several speakers said.
"A megawatt here, a megawatt there, it all helps," said Tom Glavian, contingency planning manager for the California Energy Commission.
Among other options discussed was the possibility of the county joining the cities to create their own utility company. It is illegal for a county to own a utility company, though a city is permitted to do so. Los Angeles and Glendale both own their own companies, and representatives attended Tuesday's session to speak to supervisors about their experiences.
Officials from L.A. and Glendale said they are not experiencing the kind of electricity squeeze felt by the majority of the state and said their utilities usually run at a profit, which is returned to the city or the general fund for other city services.
"We are not subject to rolling blackouts," said Steve Lins, an assistant city attorney for Glendale. "In fact, we have an excess of power. Municipally owned utilities give you more control, and the dividends are reinvested in the community."
Supervisors, however, were reluctant to take on the challenges of running a utility, especially since they could not be guaranteed they would be able to purchase power more cheaply than any other electricity providers.
"It is not my intent to move toward the Ventura County Energy Department," Supervisor Judy Mikels said. "Our role is conservation and education. But I do not believe we should be in the business of becoming a utility."
"The question is, 'Why?' " Supervisor Frank Schillo added. "Why should we do it? Conservation is our No. 1 effort."
Bennett countered that he, at least, "would love to be in the power business right now" but said he would only support the idea if a county study came back in favor of the venture.
"Then I'd say, 'Let's take the risk,' " Bennett said.
A report will be prepared for the board within 45 to 60 days.
But the biggest issue before supervisors was whether to earmark $4 million toward the purchase of emergency generators, needed to halt the frequent power outages that have left the Government Center inoperable. The center houses the county's administrative and public safety offices.
Last month county offices lost power 14 times. Although over the past 12 years the county has participated in a power program that allows it to save about 20% on electricity bills, outages have been rare--a total of seven before January.
That program promises no more than 25 blackouts a year. But with more than two dozen in one month, officials expect to exceed that number before the year ends.
Bennett voiced concern that with so many outages, new backup generators would burn for countless hours annually, sending harmful emissions into the air on a regular basis.
Richard Baldwin, chief officer for the county's Air Pollution Control District, who attended the study session but did not address the board, called diesel emissions "the greatest health risk from air pollution we are facing today." Most notably, inhaling such emissions increases the risk of cancer, Baldwin said.
Supervisors recommended that staff members look into other alternatives, such as solar energy, to keep the power going, and minimizing the amount of power needed to keep the lights on and computers humming.
"We don't need 100% of power to still do the government of the people," Mikels said.
John Johnston, director of the General Services Agency, who wrote the letter asking supervisors to approve purchase of the generators, agreed to study alternatives to diesel-powered generators. But he warned that the price tag would exceed $4 million.
"Primarily, your price tag is going to go way up," Johnston told the board. "But from a policy standpoint, an environmental standpoint, I can understand where you are coming from."
Johnston will research a solution that could include a combination of backup sources, such as generators and solar power.
A report on his findings will be discussed at Tuesday's board meeting.