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Supervisors to Discuss Buying Diesel Generators

Electricity: County official recommends the devices to avoid more blackouts. Some board members are skeptical.


Rejecting solar and other energy alternatives as too costly, a top county official will urge the Board of Supervisors today to approve the $4-million purchase of diesel-powered emergency generators to end blackouts at the County Government Center in Ventura.

In a report released Monday, General Services Director John Johnston said he considered alternatives such as a $55-million solar panel system, but all were too costly and too time-consuming to install.

Johnston said the backup generators could be in place by summer, when the state energy crisis is expected to peak again.

Supervisors split Monday on the recommendation.

Steve Bennett, who supports environmentally friendly energy generation, said he is still not sold on diesel generators. "I'm prepared to ask a lot of questions at the meeting [today]," Bennett said. "I'm not ready yet to just give up and go that way."

But Supervisor Frank Schillo said the county should act quickly before the peak demands of the summer months hit.

"That's what I'm looking for," Schillo said. "A cheap and quick fix at the lowest cost while we are looking at a longer-term solution."

Supervisor John Flynn said he is leaning toward replacing the county's old, inefficient backup generators with new ones, but also said he wants to study alternatives suggested by Bennett.

"It's easy to fall back to old answers," Flynn said. "And [diesel] generators are the old way of doing things. But what else can we do?"

Johnston first asked for permission to buy the diesel generators last Tuesday, but supervisors asked that he look harder at other solutions.

In recent weeks, the state energy crisis has caused blackouts at the government center 14 times, prompting employees to work by flashlight or go home early.

The blackouts have cut productivity, and county officials expect the problem to worsen during summer.

New backup generators would allow the County Jail, courthouse, and administration building to continue operating at full speed.

But Bennett argued that air-quality regulations would restrict the use of diesel generators. Burning diesel releases a gas that may cause cancer, said Richard Baldwin, chief officer for the county's Air Pollution Control District.

For that reason, air-quality regulations would allow the county to use the generators only to avoid blackouts, not to save money by using them during peak periods when utilities charge the most for energy.

Bennett said he'd like a more flexible backup system.

Diesel generators are "not something we can use as an alternate to being on the grid," Bennett said.

The new generators would replace five aging generators now used to supply power when blackouts hit, but which are not powerful enough to sustain the demand from office equipment at the government center.

Three of the current set must be replaced soon because of age and inefficiency.

Other new energy alternatives considered included fuel cells, micro turbines and hybrid devices that combine various energy sources. Those options were discounted because of price.

Fuel cells cost about $20 million to install while hybrids cost about $10 million. Micro turbines would cost about $4.8 million and would require the county to hire more employees to operate them. Some of the systems would also take more than a year to install, the report said.

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