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In the Dark, Trying to See Light at End of Crisis

The State | CAPITOL JOURNAL

June 25, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's dusk in the Capitol office of state Sen. Debra Bowen. Actually, it's midafternoon. But she has the lights off to save electricity and not much sun is coming through a shaded window.

Her thermostat is set at 76 degrees, but it feels warmer because outside it's 100 and she's up on the fourth floor.

There's a bright red, oversized cover framing a shiny white light switch by the door. You can't miss it leaving the room. "That's for the people who have trouble turning off lights," she says.

Bowen, 45, a Marina del Rey Democrat and environmental lawyer, represents the good side of term limits. Conscientious and cutting-edge. She replaced a termed-out, octogenarian senator, Ralph Dills, first elected to the Legislature in the Great Depression.

Since coming to the Assembly in 1992, Bowen has focused on environmental protection, foster children and high-tech--most recently trying, unsuccessfully, to guard the privacy of Internet consumers.

But now, like the Legislature itself, she's bogged down with an all-consuming issue that won't go away. The senator has been thrust into the middle of a tangled energy mess she and other lawmakers unwittingly helped create with their lemming-like votes five years ago.

This time, however, Bowen is a major player as head of the Senate energy committee.

Something must be going right, I note. We haven't had any of those rolling blackouts everybody had predicted for June.

"My biggest concern," she replies, sitting in the twilight, "is that we're being fooled right now because of the early snowmelt. We've got more power than we need."

Hydroelectric power being generated by the Sierra runoff, she explains, is being sent to British Columbia. BC is using the California power and keeping its own water stored behind dams. Later in summer, as this state runs dry, BC will generate hydro and send it to us.

Thus every kilowatt California saves today can be banked in Canada and later withdrawn during tough times.

"I don't want people to get the idea that just because we haven't had Stage 2s or blackouts we shouldn't be concerned," Bowen says. "We're still going to be short power this summer. . . .

"But how do you expect Jane Citizen to figure all this out?"

Especially when Joe and Janice Legislator are having such a difficult time.

There is one vexing problem still facing the Legislature on energy. It has passed bills promoting conservation, expediting power plant construction, authorizing the state to sign long-term contracts for wholesale electricity, creating a state power authority and approving bond sales to finance it all. What's left is how--and whether--to save Southern Cal Edison from bankruptcy.

The Legislature faces an Aug. 15 deadline to approve a memo of understanding between Gov. Gray Davis and Edison. After that, the MOU presumably goes poof and Edison collapses.

But the Legislature has a cocky way of ignoring and testing deadlines. Right now there must be 100 ideas about how to handle Edison. Decision-making is diffused. Bowen's energy committee, for example, is just one of three that is holding Senate hearings on the Edison bailout.

"There's not much consensus," she acknowledges.

The governor's proposed Edison rescue involves state purchase of the utility's transmission lines for about $2.8 billion. Democrats seem ambivalent and Republicans are opposed. Long ago, the MOU was diagnosed as DOA.

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco)--the most powerful legislator--thinks the MOU is a giveaway to Edison.

In the Assembly, Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) has been pushing a unique alternative he believes could also work for PG&E, now struggling in Bankruptcy Court. Under his plan, only the "core" residential and small business users would be served by private utilities. Electricity would be generated by the utilities themselves and regulated by the Public Utilities Commission. Like the good old days before disastrous deregulation.

The "noncore" big power users who wanted deregulation in the first place would buy electricity directly from the generators and marketers, presumably at a savings. "They're the ones who brought this on us," Hertzberg says.

But, he adds, "there's a billion moving parts" and they're not fitting well. For one, there may not be enough power to buy directly now that the state has cornered so much in long-term contracts.

Bowen is one of the better ones. But not even she is sure what the Legislature's next step should be. "We don't have a lot of room to move," she says.

Nor a lot of time. If Edison goes bankrupt, it truly will be a dark day in the Capitol.

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