Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

30 Days on the Blink

February 14, 2001|PETER H. KING

Barring some unlikely reprieve from the electricity gods, Californians today will find themselves placed under a Stage 3 power alert for the 30th consecutive day. That's a full month of bracing for blackouts, a full month of hacking through a thicket of explanations and accusations and excuses from those wonderful folks who brought them deregulation.

As a result, it's safe to say Californians now know a few more things about the energy field than they did, oh, 31 days ago. Thirty-one days ago, for example, the average Californian, if quizzed, might have guessed that Path 15--the now-infamous power line bottleneck in the southern Central Valley--was a landing strip for UFOs somewhere outside Fallon, Nev.

Thirty-one days ago, the acronym "IOU" generally was understood to mean a promise to pay money owed, as opposed to actual payment. Californians following the energy situation closely now know that IOU also can stand for Investor-Owned Utilities. This can cause some confusion in the cases of PG&E and Edison, investor-owned utilities that lately have been making promises as opposed to actual payments to suppliers they owe.

Thirty-one days ago, the idea of a Stage 3 alert seemed ominous, spooky. Now it seems more like the electrical equivalent of a smog warning in the L.A. Basin--something to bear in mind, but no reason to head for the hills. The first month of Stage 3 power alerts produced only two days of rolling blackouts. These were confined to pockets of Northern and Central California and proved to be decidedly less than catastrophic. What to make of this?

*

*

The conspiracy theorists--and to those so inclined the energy crisis offers a landscape loaded with grassy knolls--will suggest that the lack of blackouts can be seen as proof that the whole crisis, quote-unquote, is a sham, a plot to fleece Californians. A less cinematic possibility is that the alerts, along with soaring gas bills, have helped rally electricity users to greater efforts at conservation. If this is the case, the alarms inevitably will lose strength the more they come to be seen as routine. Anybody for devising a Stage 4 alert?

It could also be that the curves of supply and demand are not quite so far out of whack as first believed, that the grid can squeak by with smaller margins of energy reserves than originally thought possible. Droughts tend to teach Californians that they can make do with much less water. Perhaps a similar point is now being made about electricity.

Still, this is only the winter. However tight electrical supplies have been this season, Californians have been taught to expect an even more harrowing summer. A Cambridge Energy Research Associates study released this week predicts that California will endure a minimum of 20 hours of rolling blackouts this summer--which, again, sounds terrible, but if managed properly ought not to force a wholesale return to Stone Age lifestyles.

As energy demand tracks the seasons, so, too, does it track the hours of any given day. It's not that California has been short of electricity. It's that California has been short of electricity for about 90 minutes each day, mostly in the late afternoons and early evenings. Seen in this context, the situation at once seems not quite so fearsome, and the options seem less drastic. Maybe they won't need to harness Yosemite Falls to a power plant, after all. Maybe it's just a matter of shutting down certain appliances for a few minutes every hour in peak periods.

*

*

In fact, William Keese, chairman of the California Energy Commission, was quoted as telling a power conference in San Diego this week that the cycling off of air-conditioners by computer during summertime peaks offers "a massive opportunity for efficiency," adding: "You can ratchet that power up and down faster than you can turn on a power plant."

Unfortunately, another lesson yielded in the past month is an old one. A crisis does not always flush out the best solutions. Instead, it can be seized by people pushing pet projects that have little to do with the problem at hand. Presenting California's electrical shortage as a rationale for Alaskan oil exploration is a prime example of this. It won't be the last.

Californians also have learned that it's a hostile world beyond the Sierra, loads of pent-up animosity--and envy?--ready to be unleashed on the Golden Land. They have learned that, when it comes to paying bills, the big utilities hold themselves to lesser standards than they do their customers. And they have learned that under deregulation, reliability must be balanced with profitability: Their new friends in the energy bidness aren't keen on firing up unprofitable plants just to display some tender mercy or sense of social duty.

It's all business now.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|