An antiquated and overworked system of electric transmission lines could leave much of California starved for power even if the state can eventually generate and import enough electricity to serve its 34 million residents.
The 26,000-mile-long system--enough wire to circle Earth--has long been neglected, a victim of poor planning, unexpected growth in electricity consumption and regulations that make the lines a poor investment from the standpoint of the big utilities.
The long-distance transmission lines, strung on 150-foot-tall steel towers spaced at quarter-mile intervals, face particularly strong local opposition. Citizen protests have also stalled plans to build power plants, but outrage soars when it comes to the high-voltage wires, which many associate with radiation-related health hazards.
"It's difficult to build a power plant, but often more difficult to build a transmission line," said Bob Therkelsen, deputy director for facilities siting at the California Energy Commission.
The problem has deep roots. In the early part of the 20th century, there was no electricity grid: Each utility was self-sufficient. But by the 1920s, utilities and states were connecting their systems to form a sort of mutual-aid society in the event of outages or natural calamities.
As utilities have been deregulated, more and more electricity is bought, sold and delivered as a commodity over ever-increasing distances and from state to state. That has put an unanticipated strain on transmission systems that were initially designed to be self-contained.
As with California's shortage of power generation, its transmission woes are a simple case of energy demand having outpaced the infrastructure to supply it. Electricity use in the last decade has grown twice as fast as new transmission capacity.
More Troubles on the Horizon
The problem could get much worse in the next decade, because the state is planning to boost generation capacity by 25%, but it is expanding transmission capacity only by about 5%.
Two weeks ago, the transmission crunch came to a head in unprecedented rolling blackouts, which brought the energy crisis home to hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in the northern and central parts of the state.
A principal culprit in the Jan. 17 and 18 blackouts was a relatively short segment of the statewide power grid called Path 15, a 90-mile link between the Central Valley towns of Los Banos and Coalinga where capacity problems imperiled the entire state system.
It is at that point that the Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison systems connect.
Like a two-lane freeway tunnel suddenly taking on three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, Path 15 has proved inadequate to the task of delivering electricity from occasionally electron-rich Southern California to electron-starved Northern California.
There are other weak points in the grid that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and up to five years' lead time to repair. Concerns are focused on San Diego County, the San Francisco Bay Area and California's "interconnects" with Arizona and Oregon.
How is it that a state at the vanguard of the technology revolution, itself the sixth-largest economy in the world, has developed such an Achilles' heel?
The answer lies in a tangle of factors:
* The major utilities, elected officials and other architects of California's now-discredited deregulation plan failed to anticipate sharp growth in electricity demand.
* Expansion has been discouraged in part because regulations deny utilities an adequate return on investment in transmission lines, said Karl Stahlkopf, vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto think tank.
Because electricity is an interstate commodity, grid operations are overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which restricts the profit that utilities make on new transmission projects to an annual average of 9% on investment. Such returns pale in comparison with the 15% to 20% utilities can earn on other, unregulated investments.
* A dry fall and winter have caused a precipitous drop in hydroelectric generation in the Pacific Northwest, normally a source of power for California. That has forced Northern California to import electricity from the southern half of the state, exposing the bottleneck at Path 15.
The state's problems are just the most vivid symptoms of an issue that seems to have crept up on an entire nation.
Experts including Stahlkopf cite studies that have pegged the cost of lost U.S. productivity from power outages and related problems at $100 billion a year. Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., estimates that the outages of the last two weeks have cost California $2.3 billion in production cutbacks and lost wages.
Building more transmission capacity would be easier, proponents say, if there were a regional or federal authority that could exercise eminent domain siting powers.