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California and the West

Raft of Bills Aimed at Energy Conservation

Power: Lawmakers propose everything from loans for schools to free insulation in bid to reduce consumption this summer.

March 30, 2001|JENIFER WARREN and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In their quest to cut energy use so Californians can keep their ovens and air-conditioners humming this summer, state officials have turned to a time-tested strategy: the good ol' carrot and stick.

The Public Utilities Commission took care of the stick earlier this week, approving a record increase in electricity rates. Now the Legislature is working feverishly on the carrot.

More than 190 bills springing from the power crisis are buzzing around the Capitol, and a good number aim to coax or bribe us onto a low-watt diet. If we resist, state forecasters warn, summer blackouts are inevitable.

To ease the pain, lawmakers are proposing loans, tax credits, refrigerator rebates, free insulation for low-income homeowners--even $40 million for a "mobile efficiency brigade" to deliver power-saving lightbulbs to poor people and businesses.

Some measures had been stalled as legislators focused on the financial crisis afflicting the state's debt-ridden private utilities, which say they are on the verge of bankruptcy. But the rate increase stabilized the financial outlook a bit, and now the focus is back on Sacramento.

Displaying newfound pep, lawmakers are shaping and blending bills in hopes that the governor can sign them by the end of next week--which also marks the start of the Legislature's spring break.

Energy specialists say there is not a moment to spare. Last week--a time when temperatures were mild and energy demand was half that of summer--the state suffered back-to-back blackouts. Hot weather is fast approaching, and some conservation measures take time to put in place and sell to consumers.

One estimate by the California Energy Commission says that for every day the Legislature delays passage of the biggest conservation bill--the sweeping SB 5X--the state misses the chance to save 20 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 15,000 homes.

"It's extremely urgent," said the bill's author, state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford). "All the experts agree that reducing demand through conservation is the least expensive, most effective way we can get control quickly over the energy market."

While the conservation measures are the priority, dozens of other bills addressing some dimension of the energy mess are piling up.

One assemblyman wants to make looting during blackouts a crime, and require that law enforcement officials get a warning before blackouts are ordered. Another bill would expedite the approval process for new power plants.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) wants to ensure that operators of new California power plants are forced to offer their electricity for sale within the state before marketing it elsewhere.

"This is about giving California the right of first refusal," Hertzberg said before his Assembly colleagues approved the bill, AB 60X, and sent it to the Senate. Without such a requirement, Hertzberg said, California would suffer air pollution and other costs of hosting plants but reap no benefit.

That theme--giving California more control over the power supply--also runs through a measure sponsored by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco). His bill, SB 6X, would put the state in the business of building, financing, acquiring and owning its own power plants.

Burton says the bill would enable California to control its own "energy destiny," as other states do, including New York. But Republicans warn that it would create a vast new bureaucracy and say that making and selling power is best done by private industry.

Burton's bill has passed the Senate and awaits action in the Assembly. But next week's priority, legislators say, will be passing two gargantuan conservation bills considered vital to helping California survive summer without widespread power outages.

Analysts say the bills--Sher's and a measure by Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego)--would allocate about $1 billion to programs that could reduce summer demand by as much as 4,000 megawatts--the equivalent of what eight average-size power plants produce.

Forecasts of a summer power shortfall range from 2,500 to 5,000 megawatts, said Ralph Cavanagh, an energy expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council: "So these bills could really be decisive."

And although $1 billion may seem like a sizable investment for appliance rebates, home weatherization, free lightbulbs and other conservation measures, it's peanuts compared to the exorbitant price--close to $4 billion in the last three months--the state is paying to buy energy on the spot market, Cavanagh said.

Experts say the conservation proposals--many of which Gov. Gray Davis made in February--have a good chance of success because they build on existing programs with track records. While there are "probably lots of great, innovative new ideas out there, we stuck with proven programs because we need certainty for this summer," said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the California Energy Commission, headquarters for many of the conservation efforts.

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