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California and the West

Secretary of Energy, Davis Meet on U.S. Plan to Boost Conservation

Crisis: Federal buildings and military bases, accounting for 1.5% of state's usage, will cut back.

May 04, 2001|RICHARD SIMON and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In a visit meant to underscore the Bush administration's heightened concern about the California electricity crisis, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham met Thursday with Gov. Gray Davis in Sacramento to discuss federal energy conservation plans.

"I think we have an approach that can result in significant savings," Abraham told Davis. The energy secretary said he was in California "to gauge what we can do to add to what California is already doing."

The trip came after President Bush revealed plans for a series of conservation measures for federal buildings and military bases nationwide. Those facilities in California account for 1.5% of the state's total energy use. Today, Abraham is scheduled to meet with federal officials in San Francisco to work out details of the nationwide program for more than 500,000 federal buildings.

After meeting with Abraham at the White House earlier Thursday, Bush said: "We're worried about blackouts that may occur this summer, and we want to be a part of any solutions. This administration is deeply concerned about California and its citizens."

Defending his response to the California crisis, Bush said, "As I said from the very beginning of my administration, we'll work to help California in any way we can."

Also Thursday, Davis met with alternative energy producers in an attempt to persuade them to continue operations, despite being owed more than $1 billion by California's private utilities.

Alternative energy producers, including oil companies that generate electricity as a byproduct of their operations, account for about 27% of the electricity consumed in California. Several have stopped producing after the utilities could no long afford to pay soaring prices for their power.

Davis assigned S. David Freeman and former Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Davis appointee to a state water board, to be in charge of negotiations. Davis said he hoped that the talks could be completed within a week.

And in a sign that major energy companies may get more involved in the California crisis, Kenneth Lay, CEO of the Houston-based energy giant Enron Corp., met Thursday with Davis, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco).

Meanwhile, Bush on Thursday directed federal agencies to "take appropriate actions to conserve energy use at their facilities."

In California, such measures could include setting thermostats to 78 degrees, lowering lighting and turning off escalators during Stage 2 and Stage 3 power emergencies, administration officials said. Those occur when the state's electricity reserves fall below 5% and 1.5%, respectively, and can trigger interruptions in service.

Bush did not set an energy-saving target. But the Defense Department, one of the state's single largest energy consumers--using about 1% of peak demand--pledged to reduce peak use by 10% this summer and an additional 5% by summer 2002. That would make available 200 megawatts, officials said, enough to provide electricity to about 150,000 homes during the summer.

The federal government accounts for about 1.5% of total energy use across the country, making it one of the nation's largest energy consumers, according to the Energy Department.

Bush also offered to make available to the state power-generating units owned by the federal government.

But his efforts failed to mollify Democratic critics, who renewed calls for the administration to impose price controls on wholesale electricity.

"The generating companies are gouging California consumers while the president turns his back on us," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), leader of the California Democratic congressional delegation, sent a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney protesting Democrats' exclusion from Cheney's meeting this week with California GOP lawmakers.

"As we head into the high summer demand months, it is unfortunate that you have decided to keep Democrats in the dark about the administration's plans to deal with the crisis," Farr said.

Bush's conservation initiative comes after Cheney, who is heading a task force on national energy policy, was assailed by some critics for emphasizing production over conservation.

"Conservation has got to be an integral part of making sure we've got a reasonable energy policy," Bush said Thursday. "But what the vice president was saying is we can't conserve our way to energy independence, nor can we conserve our way to having enough energy available. We've got to do both. We must conserve, but we've also got to find new sources of energy."

David M. Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, called the directive an "emergency answer to a long-term problem."

"We need to fix the underlying problem by investing in energy-efficient lighting, cooling and controls," he said. "We hope that this crisis will encourage the president to increase the budget for energy management rather than cut it by 48% as previously proposed."

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