In the dark

by Carolyn Chase


Talk about disempowerment.

So I'm sitting in a hotel ballroom at a smart growth conference in San Diego last weekend and the announcement is made that we are subject to a blackout, and that if the lights go out we should sit there and wait for instructions.

Sit in the dark and wait for instructions. It has come to this -- in what they tell me is the sixth largest economy in the world.

The tourism brochures are going to have to change. How about: "Come to California: Bring your own flashlight," or "California: Batteries Required."
One speaker said he finally figured out why it was so cold in his hotel room last night.

The Golden State has lost its glow -- literally. We are now the "Brownout State" and who can you call?

Deregulation politicians and other business lobbyists ignored consumer advocates such as Michael Shames of Utility Consumers Action Network, and we got taken to the cleaners.

I don't believe it's too strong to assert that there is not one elected official in this state who has the experience and knowledge of our power systems to be dabbling in "reforming" them based on advice dominated by paid lobbyists. I'm afraid this is also true of the traffic congestion and transportation system as well. Our ability to have short-term elected officials make multibillion-dollar decisions about complex systems when they have at least a dozen or more to grapple at once with is -- shall we say -- quaint.

The state of California is having blackouts with a system load of 28,000 megawatts -- this is 18,000 megawatts below the system peak in the summer. Don't blame this on a failure to build power plants or on purchase power from other states. Those arguments may have some merit regarding our running out of power at midsummer, but they have absolutely no relationship to our problems now. We've never run out before when load was 28,000 megawatts -- even when we had a lot fewer power plants than we do now.

A major contributor to the current crisis is that plants servicing California with 11,000 megawatts of capacity have been taken out of service for a variety of reasons, most undisclosed.

Power producers are inappropriately citing increased demand to justify building new plants, and they are hoping to speed the process by suspending California's environment-friendly standards and blocking the ability of communities to oppose new, inappropriate or polluting plants. But attempts to make environmental concerns the scapegoats for the state's electricity woes are misguided. None of the nine plants recently licensed by the California Energy Commission was delayed by the Sierra Club.

Known cost-effective solutions were ignored. Had energy efficiency been wisely invested instead of cut, California would not be in dire straits now. Public investment in energy efficiency was severely cut by the deregulation legislation on the theory that the "free market" would do the investing. In addition, the utilities were allowed to control the limited efficiency funds although their conflict of interest is obvious. Even when electricity prices soared, a large fraction of the public efficiency funds controlled by the utilities went unspent.

California is facing this crisis because the political system that's supposed to protect the public interest got rolled by big money interests yet again. Pleas to the Bush administration are falling on deaf ears. Is it merely coincidence that major Bush supporters are at the heart of extracting massive amounts cash from Californians because our legislators left us open to market manipulations by cartel-like operators?

Clearly, it is time to pull the plug on this disastrous experiment.

The Sierra Club points out that unmet demand, almost all of which is attributable to new population growth, should be filled with new, clean and efficient plants.

UCAN is proposing legislative reforms:

Curb the harmful influence of consumer-hostile regulators by enabling California institutions to build public power plants. This step will completely reduce the influence of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and curb the excesses of the California Public Utilities Commission by combining the California Power Exchange and the Independent System Operator under the aegis of a not-for-profit regulatory entity that is accountable to the state, and ultimately the people.

Take purchasing of power out of SDG&E's hands. SDG&E has proven that it has neither the interest nor capability to aggressively purchase power for residential and small-business customers. That's fine, let someone else do it. The Power Exchange currently exists and its role can be expanded to purchase power for all small customers in California.

Take back control of the state's transmission grid. Your electric bill has two parts: the cost of electricity, and the "transmission cost." This cost covers the expense of maintaining the grid of power lines and transformers that deliver power to your home. Currently, the federal government controls that grid, but by buying it the state can wrest control back from FERC and prevent future rate extortion by privately owned monopolies.

Shames points out, "A handful of big power companies control most of the power generated in the western United States. The available evidence suggests that these companies are profiting at our expense by creating bogus electricity shortages -- so even if they build new power plants, it won't solve the problem. We need to keep the private producers honest by building power plants that we know will sell the power to Californians ... at reasonable prices. If the private sector refuses to sell cheap power, then our state and local governments can --- and I guarantee it can be done at rates far lower than what the free market is currently charging."

UCAN's team of nationally respected experts note that new electric power plants aren't that expensive to build, and they certainly do not cost the 15 cents to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour we've been paying this year for that power. Cheap, environmentally safe energy is becoming readily available. Energy efficiency has been pretty much ignored in California and could substantially reduce the need for many of the planned power plants. Huge new transmission lines are not necessary, and you should not have to live in fear of outrageous electric bills.

Sierra Club California pointed out, "The current electricity crisis was created by those who believed that a hands-off laissez-faire approach to the electricity system would lower costs. Now that this philosophy has so obviously failed, they blame 'environmentalists' and 'excessive regulation.' They are just as wrong now as they were before."

Will politicians listen -- and learn -- this time around? And to whom?