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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

If Only Myths Were Megawatts . . .

February 07, 2001|PETER H. KING

If the myths surrounding California's energy mess somehow could be converted into megawatts, the state would be awash in electricity and, in the words of Merle Haggard, we'd "all be drinking that free Bubble Up and eating that rainbow stew." Whatever that means.

Alas, this is not the case. A haze of half-truths, revised histories and other forms of rhetorical hocus-pocus has enveloped the public dialogue over what has happened with California energy and who should pay for it.

Perhaps the most galling piece of mythology, so popular among California bashers across the land, is that the problem is rooted in California itself and, in particular, in a sun-addled, something-for-nothing outlook on life. In an editorial about the energy crunch, the Wall Street Journal sneeringly labeled California the "Alfred E. Neuman state," a reference to the "What, me worry?" cover boy of Mad magazine.

The idea seems to be that Californians have been too busy meditating in the hot tub to recognize that it takes energy to generate those soothing bubbles, and that as the state attracts more and more hot tub soakers it will need more and more electricity. The idea also seems to be that we kept tilting at windmills when we should have been decorating our coasts with offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors, that California's concern for its environment is a luxury that it can no longer afford.


In fact, Californians are not hopeless energy addicts; the state ranks 47th in the nation in terms of per capita consumption. Over the past decade, energy usage in California did rise by 11%--but nationally, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures, it climbed at twice that rate. In fact, the bulk of growth in consumption on the overburdened Western grid has occurred in states that neighbor California.

In other words, it's not all about Topanga Canyon hot tubs and Silicon Valley computers. The posse searching for where all the energy goes might also look toward the bright lights of booming Las Vegas and, come summer, the humming air conditioners of Phoenix, Tucson, et al.

Yet what about the other side of the electrical switch? Over and over again, the point is made that California hasn't built any new energy plants in the last decade. The impression created is that environmentalists and bureaucrats have locked arms and encircled any and all prospective power generation sites, gently singing "Kumbaya" while the energy producers stalk off to Texas and the lights of the Golden Land dim, flicker and go dark.

In fact, there are 10 power plants now under construction in California, with a total generating capacity of roughly 6,500 megawatts. In addition, 14 projects with a collective capacity of 7,500 megawatts are under review, with construction scheduled to start sometime this year. Fourteen thousand megawatts represents about a third of what the state currently needs to survive its highest peaks in demand. That's quite a lot of new energy development going on in a state that forgot to develop new energy.


To be fair, there had been a slowdown in energy development--although one not confined to California. Like almost everything that drives the energy business, it had to do with pure economics. As energy prices drop, so too does the desire to build more plants and drill more well-heads. When they climb, the opposite occurs. Some energy consultants, in fact, already see signs of California's energy crisis winding down. They see these signs, not in the frenzied hallways of the state Capitol, but in distant natural-gas oil fields where, sparked by soaring prices, drilling activity has perked up again.

There have been other myths. There was the myth, rather quickly shot down, that Southern California's air quality rules somehow were behind the supply crunch. There was the business of the consumer rate freeze, a feature of deregulation that has prevented utilities from passing along to customers wildly inflated wholesale power costs. Lost in the myth-making here was the fact that this price ceiling functioned for the first couple of years, by design, as a price floor, keeping consumer rates propped up while the utilities raked in billions.

"Headroom," they called it.

There was the more amusing myth of the Christmas lights. Remember how turning off Christmas lights was supposed to help ease California through its crisis? To borrow once again from the ever-reliable Merle Haggard: "If we make it through December, we'll be fine." Well, we did make it through December, but we aren't fine, at least not yet. Soon enough, though, we will be. To suggest that California, in the end, always has frustrated those who would rush to write it off as a paradise lost, as a doomed experiment in easy living, is not mythology. It is history.

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