Air Conditioners Cause Calif. Energy Troubles : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Too Many Air Conditioners! Heat Wave, Tech Boom Overpower Calif. Utilities

By David Ruppe

June 15  As San Francisco swelters in record heat, power shortages have prevented many people in the area from cooling off with air conditioners or fans. Who should sticky, sweaty residents blame? Perhaps the technology boom in nearby Silicon Valley.

State authorities say the booming tech business has led to enormous population and business growth. New residents with new money are buying expensive big homes  and installing them with power-sucking air conditioners and computers. We added almost 600,000 [residents] last year, were at 34 million Californians and growing, says Patrick Dorison, director of communications at California Independent System Operator, a nonprofit agency that manages most of that states electric flow. On Wednesday, temperatures in the Bay Area hit 103, tying the high in records dating back to 1871. Tens of thousands of businesses and homes in the Bay Area went without power for hours, some voluntarily, as Cal-ISO scrambled to keep millions of air conditioners blaring during the tropical temperatures. Some of the regions in the Bay Area which were having problems yesterday, 25 years ago they were just fields and open land, now theyre full of houses and businesses, says Dorison. Internet a Factor?

Expanding housing is not the only cause of Californias power troubles, experts say. The states business boom and the growth of Internet use and Internet companies have also been factors, experts say. From 1993 till now, we have seen Internet use consume 8 percent of our national power, while computers from that same date consume about 13 percent of national power, says Michelle Montague-Bruno, communications director for the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. Thats a significant energy draw. Another phenomenon is the increasing number of so-called server farms in the area. As high-tech companies move in, they build or take over buildings to house computer servers that hold large volumes of data. Some office buildings hosting server farms use 10 to 12 times more power than a traditional office building, the San Jose Mercury News recently reported.

Energy concerns are an emerging issue for area companies, says Montague-Bruno, whose group represents 175 Silicon Valley firms, many of them high-tech leaders. The group today announced creating an task force to try to find solutions for the areas short and long term energy needs. One Silicon Valley company, Montague-Bruno says, reported losing $1 million an hour for three hours during power outages Wednesday. One company that didns lose out was Oracle. The software company had obtained its own power generator  in anticipation of a hot summer.

And, in a new pilot program also started today by Cal-ISO, six California businesses will receive a total of $26 million in monthly payments, from June through October, in exchange for being on standby for blackouts. They have volunteered to have their power turned off during shortages.

Looking to the Future Perhaps the Bay Areas power shortages perhaps werent as bad as they could have been. As it turns out, California chronically underproduces new housing to meet its heavy demand. In 1999, 101,711 new single-family homes were created in the state, according to Californias Construction Industry Research Board. But since 1990, statewide demand for housing exceeded supply by more than 660,000 units, officials say. The result has been skyrocketing housing costs and fierce competition for available housing.

But Californias population growth is probably only going to cause more trouble for the power companies. A recent report prepared for the state estimated housing would be needed for 45 million more Californians by 2020  representing more than 100 percent population growth. So where will the power for all those people come from? More power generators is one solution, says Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the California Energy Commission, the states principle energy planning, policy and regulatory agency. She says five new power plants were just approved and an additional 12 power plants are in the licensing process, waiting to join the 3,500 California already has in operation. That may or may not help in terms of meeting the peak power demand during the summer, though it should be sufficient during the rest of the year, says Chandler.

The other solution, she says, is increased energy conservation by average Californians during hot times, to bring the peak down. That could mean pulling down the drapes, fanning air out of a hot attic at night, and buying energy-saving appliances, she says. Those are ways to shave the peak, she says.  Sascha Siegan contributed to this report

-- Martin Thompson (, June 16, 2000

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