California power: Ignorance is bliss? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Note paragraph about “Y2K survivalists”, fourth from the bottom:

Headline: Power to the people? You must be kidding, pal

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 2001

Polled recently with the question "Where does electricity come from?", a majority of Californians answered "electricity". The second-most popular answer was the more predictable, but no less solipsistic, "power points".

These polls were not Family Feud, but a serious inquiry into people's understanding of the electricity crisis now facing the State, and the answers uncovered the degree to which consumers take their power supply for granted.

It is said people would never eat sausages if they saw them being made, and the United States has already taken a close recent look at the misshapen sausage-machine of its democratic processes. With an electricity shortage that led to three days of blackouts last week, and is presently stoppered only by an emergency government payment that will stave off new shortages for only three weeks, Californians are facing concrete proof that electricity neither grows on trees nor springs magically from the ether.

"They don't see reservoirs going down. They don't see fields of crops dying in the hot sun," said Bill Vitek, a professor and expert on environmental ethics at Clarkson University in New York.

"Electricity ... is just there."

What they have learnt is that it comes from other states, at least since privatisation of California's electricity in 1996 coincided with an unforeseen surge of demand, mainly from technology companies in the booming San Jose area that exist cheek by jowl with conservationists who have blocked the construction and full running of environmentally unfriendly coal-fired power stations. The crisis is a cultural clash between California's new economy and its new age economy.

In 1996 power stations in this State supplied 130 per cent of what was needed; now they supply only 80 per cent. Although California conserves electricity better than most states, it also generates the least, and 55 per cent of its power stations are more than 30 years old.

Ill-preparedness for the power-thirsty new economy has been criticised by some, including Mr Carl Wood, a member of the commission that oversees the electricity industry.

"We put in place an answer to the problems of the steel mills and cement plants at a time when Cisco and Qualcomm were becoming the growth sectors of the California economy," he said.

"People have been fighting the last war, not the coming war."

Such have been the complexities of the crisis, and the brinksmanship of the three main players - the State Government, the privately owned Californian suppliers, and the out-of-State generating companies - that the overwhelming public mood has been one of suspicion.

The State has been asking the public to conserve electricity since the end of November, with little success. Terry Winter, the president of the Independent System Operator, which regulates electricity flow through California, said he shuddered at people's responses over the failure to conserve through Christmas.

"I get the answer, 'It's not a real problem. They just say it's a problem'."

Who are "they"?

"People don't really know."

One function of blackouts is to express the crisis in a language consumers understand. Ripple-effects of last week's rolling outages, the first intentional ones in California since World War II, are easier to grasp. Silicon Valley firms were faced with the possibility of computer malfunction and loss of information. Petrol suppliers have predicted queues at the bowser because they lack electricity to pump fuel through their pipelines. Police have warned citizens to beware of theft because of the failure of alarms and early-warning systems.

The State's many Y2K survivalists, derided since evaporation of that threat in early 2000, are again drawing attention to themselves by stocking up on candles and canned food, and readying to live in their home-powered basements.

Nobody doubts that this is a big test for Governor Gray Davis, who, rather than act unpopularly, seems to prefer to not act at all.

Mr Davis has mistrusted the utilities and suppliers, and tried to mobilise public antipathy for these faceless companies. One of the utilities, Southern California Edison, has stalled payment of debts of $US600 million ($1.08 billion) even though it has $US1.2 billion in cash reserves. One of the energy companies, based in Houston, has enjoyed a sixfold rise in profits by hitting the Californian utilities with price rises.

The new age and the new economy have collided, and the results will be ugly and costly.

-- Andre Weltman (, January 23, 2001

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