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Group Hopes to Flip the Switch to Pure Power Utilities: Local high-tech advocacy body is pushing for creation of a system that eliminates electrical flow glitches for businesses.

By MATT SURMAN, Times Staff Writer March 12, 2000

Lights blink, the stereo skips: That's a household inconvenience. An Internet server resets, knocking thousands of users offline and causing headaches across the country: That's a business nightmare. Electrical reliability that is acceptable for a typical household's TVs and lamps--with its infinitesimal glitches and hiccups--can create havoc on the increasingly complex technology used in many industries, according to experts. John Mungenast, who heads a high-tech advocacy group sponsored by the Ventura County Economic Development Collaborative, has set his sights on fixing that problem for good. "It's not that power has turned bad," Mungenast said. "It's that loads are so demanding, and won't take any dips. What was good enough no longer is."

Mungenast and his handful of supporters at the county's high-tech cluster are dreaming the big dream. They have set their sights on an ambitious goal that detractors argue is not yet practical, or necessary, in the county.

He is calling on Southern California Edison to help establish what is called a power quality park in the county. The concept, introduced by Westinghouse in 1992 to meet the needs of customers in the Midwest, involves creating a site near a substation that would be able to filter out the bumps in everyday electrical flow for sensitive technology.

Industries that require such pure power would then move near the park . And if a deal could not be struck with Edison, Mungenast can envision Ventura County's high-tech core--the energy-sapping semiconductor companies and computer-automated manufacturers--taking itself out of Southern California Edison's hands completely and creating its own power sources. This would basically be a private power station, funded and run by member companies. Such energy could be created by use of fuel cells or solar cells, expensive technologies that have been endorsed by stock market analysts as a hot industry.

Such a station, Mungenast said, could be the future of power. "It's yours. It's right there," Mungenast said. "You don't have to worry about lightning striking a power line. It's not only very high quality, but it's always available."

The proximity of the equipment would make damage to power lines less likely, because there would be less wire to damage.

Concern about power quality is worldwide, and a global industry has sprung up to support companies with power worries: symposiums, equipment companies, consulting firms, even a magazine, Power Quality Assurance, which is based in Ventura.

Mungenast is considered an international expert. He runs conferences for Adams/Intertec International, publisher of the power quality magazine. He speaks around the world, and has run semiconductor companies on both coasts.

With more than 50 years in the business, Mungenast has watched sensitive technology bloom, and ultimately speed past the capabilities of electric utilities. So he preaches a gospel of power quality with an engineer's version of born-again fervor. He is a technological witness, a prophet of power.

* * * Embrace the future, he said. Give up on the Band-Aid solutions, he suggests.

Most companies use what Mungenast considers stop-gap measures to keep their operations flowing. They have battery backup systems and modest generators to smooth over periodic outages--both the minute ones and the type that drag on for hours.

But two county companies--Procter & Gamble and Sithe Energies-have their own power stations. And the future Cal State Channel Islands campus also has a power station, left over from the site's days as a mental hospital isolated from the populated portions of Camarillo. Mungenast envisions an on-campus training center one day, to educate a generation of employees needed to manage private generators.

But most area high-tech firms--and only a minority of them really need very pure power--say the current measures are enough. Demand for a power park, they say, is in the distant future and really not necessary now, despite the county's huge growth of high-tech.

"When we arrived in 1985, we had a power outage maybe weekly. It was affecting our business significantly," said Giovanni Scola, facility director at Vitesse Semiconductor in Camarillo, which makes semiconductors for telecommunications and automated test equipment manufacturers. A backup generator has been enough to solve the problem.

And some local businesses say outages--despite their seeming regularity to those accustomed to returning home to a blinking alarm clock--have never been less of a problem. As recently as 1997, Southern California Edison had a shaky reliability record. The city of Camarillo complained about frequent outages, saying the Oxnard Plain incurred far more than could be blamed on bad weather and errant sea gulls crashing into power lines.

The electric company located 19 circuits on the Oxnard Plain with a power failure record much higher than average, and has spend more than $4 million to replace aging equipment and step up tree-trimming efforts.

That effort solved the problem, Edison regional manager Mike Montoya said, and Camarillo officials confirm they are pleased with the progress.

* * * Some argue Ventura County's agricultural background might have left it a bit behind the starting line, saying the sprawling power lines offer more opportunity for outside forces to intrude. In an urban setting, where power lines don't need to stretch for miles to reach a business, it's less likely that something--a car hitting a power pole, a bird resting in the wrong place--would disrupt the power source.

"With any major geographic area, you'll have pockets where you have degraded service" even in the high-tech Silicon Valley, said Tom Shaughnessy, president of Powercet Corp., a Santa Clara-based consulting firm specializing in power quality. "In Fremont, they experienced huge growth, and ran into roadblocks from people who didn't want power lines. As a result, the infrastructure never developed as rapidly as consumer demands."

Montoya said the county's agricultural roots have no bearing on its quality of power. Customers in Ventura County receive their power from sources around the nation--not strictly from local generators. Edison's Ventura County generators, at Mandalay Beach and Ormond Beach, only use 25% to 30% of their capacity, he said.

Local businesses said they generally have few complaints with Edison, and their power quality problems are no more severe here than they would be elsewhere.

"Of those we talk to, Edison provides everything we need," said Joe McClure, president of the Economic Development Collaborative. "I don't think power quality is an issue that keeps people out of the county." Business leaders say people come to the area not for electricity quality, but for the quality of life and because the county's high-tech industry is booming. "When you're as power-intensive as Haas Automation, of course you'd like to solve this once and for all," said Jim Buchanan, facilities manager at the Oxnard-based machine toolmaker. "But, at my last job in Ohio, the power would go down for a day or two. The longest outage we've had [here] is an hour."

* * * If it comes down to it, an independent power source is a good idea in theory, some concede. But will it work now? "The only way to [be completely prepared] is to make sure you take care of your own power quality," Shaughnessy said. "I just don't know how tenable it is."

A major concern of building a private generator is dealing with the byproducts--heat and steam. Procter & Gamble uses its generator's heat in the manufacturing process. But others, including Buchanan, say they would be stuck trying to determine the know-how of disposing byproducts without damaging the environment. Also, private generators can be extremely expensive and require constant monitoring. Although, in the long run it could save companies money, proponents of such facilities maintain. But the potential long-term savings haven't been enough to start an electric revolution. Eight years later, Westinghouse is still working on several generators in Ohio. None are planned in California. "This kind of thing is still more at the envisioning point," Shaughnessy said. "The industry hasn't been driven to this point yet," though companies such as Intel, with a very developed plan and special needs, do have private generators. That is why, for now, Mungenast is hopeful he can work with Edison to set up the ambitious project. Companies would pay a higher price for their electricity through Edison, but would have more access to consistent power. If companies decided to go it alone, the process would be entirely up to them.

* * * The fact that electricity independence is not a burning concern now in Ventura County is just the point, Mungenast said. These tiny power disruptions may only be an inconvenience to these intensely sensitive technologies today. But as technology gets faster and companies thirst for smoother power, the county should be ready. And companies could come running, Mungenast believes.

Edison said it's willing to work with Mungenast--provided he is willing to work with them on setting up such a park--even if it takes years.

"It's a good concept," Montoya said. "It could be a very positive thing." Mungenast just wants Ventura County to be first in line when the time is right. "If everyone's in misery it's no trouble. You put up with the shortfall," he said. "But, wait until counties can advertise 'World's Best Power' here. Do you or don't you want your county to be a county of the future?"

-- (, March 12, 2000

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