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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Schools and Businesses Seek Ways to Save Energy

Power: Utility rate hike may require some campuses to cut services and step up conservation, officials say. Many firms are already cutting usage.

March 29, 2001|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local school districts will be hard hit by utility rate hikes, which could raise bills by as much as $1 million a year in some districts and put some services at risk, officials said Wednesday.

Schools and other big employers across Ventura County say they had begun considering ways to conserve energy--ranging from turning out the lights to switching to an alternative energy source--but said that Tuesday's rate hike of as much as 46% by the Public Utilities Commission is prodding them to act quickly.

Eric Ortega, assistant superintendent of business services for the Oxnard Union School District, said his district had been expecting only a 15% hike.

"We have to go back to the drawing board," Ortega said. "We'll have to take a look at everything to see where the money will come from."

With the new Pacifica High School opening soon, the district probably will have to make cuts, Ortega said. The first would probably be from such areas as cleaning classrooms and landscaping, he said.

"We'll look at the areas farthest away from the students in the classrooms," he said.

Lowell Schultze, assistant superintendent of Simi Valley's schools, said the district's utility bill could rise by as much as $1 million but that it was too early to talk about program cuts. However, the district has to be careful about trimming its electric bill too much, by, for example, changing the settings on the thermostats, he said.

"Our priority is the learning process for students," he said. "If it's going to be really uncomfortable, they're not going to learn."

At the Conejo Unified School District, where the district began an energy conservation program last month, Assistant Supt. Gary Mortimer said he will try to cut consumption by 20%, which would make the district eligible for a 20% rebate on the summer electric bill.

But he worried that with new buildings, a growing school population and new air-conditioning systems, that goal might be tough to reach.

"So far, the state has not made any determination if they'll help school districts out," Mortimer said. "We're concerned that the state is spending huge sums of money on the reserves to purchase power and less on school districts."

With other new expenses--from a 10% raise for school employees to higher prescription drug prices--a hike of $500,000 a year or more could be painful. And there is no way--short of a bond election--that a school district can pass on costs to the consumer.

"It's a double whammy," he said. "It's not good news."

Mortimer said his district has sent out a pamphlet to schools and put in high-efficiency heating that turns off automatically.

In the Oxnard Elementary School District, officials also are concentrating on emergency preparedness, making sure the school has battery backup, said Assistant Supt. Sandra Rosales. Ortega said his district is even taking care of such details as making sure the pool cover is kept on.

The county's big businesses seemed to be less concerned by the news of price hikes, and some managers said that conservation is already a way of life.

Some firms send out daily e-mails and voice mails reminding employees to shut down computers and turn off lights.

GTE in Thousand Oaks is even more strict, spokeswoman Julia Wilson said.

Executives have restricted hot water in some places, replaced revolving doors and removed some lamps. They are also considering alternative energy options--such as fuel cell technology powered by hydrogen from natural gas that would both help the company be more self-sufficient and environmentally friendly, Wilson said.

But most businesses report that it's too soon to know how the PUC's decision will affect them.

"We are as concerned as any other about the price of doing business," said Richard Chee of WellPoint Health Network in Thousand Oaks. But his company hadn't planned any immediate conservation plans besides exhorting employees to be careful with the lights, he said.

"Depending on how severe the issue of power becomes, you'll see conservation efforts increased in proportion," he said.

At Amgen, which spokeswoman Rebecca Hamm called a "big user," managers weren't too concerned about power problems because of precautions they had taken for Y2K.

"It's really similar: What goes onto emergency generators and what doesn't, what could cause problems with controlled storage, what to do about tissue samples and laboratories," she said. "The plan book was already written. It's business as usual."

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