As days warm, crunch looms : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Dan Walters: As days warm, crunch looms

(Published Feb. 9, 2001) YUBA CITY -- The organization that runs California's electric power grid, and tries to prevent blackouts, has a nifty little Web site where one can track the state's consumption of juice day to day. (It's www.

Thursday was cool, which meant that few air conditioners were running, and that kept the state's demand to about 30,000 megawatts (30 gigawatts), thus allowing the Independent System Operator to make it through the day without turning off anyone's lights.

As the days grow longer and warmer, however, the demand will increase steadily, and could approach 50 gigawatts on a really hot August day, a prospect that poses this pithy question: If the ISO and the state Department of Water Resources, which is now buying huge blocks of power at very high prices to relieve nearly bankrupt utilities, have trouble finding enough power on a cool day in February, what will happen in California during the dog days of summer?

Ordinarily, California would be importing summer power from the cool Northwest's vast hydroelectric plants, but we've been tapping that region hard this winter, when California ordinarily is exporting power from its own generators. And this has been a dry winter in the Northwest, leaving reservoirs -- a form of power storage -- low.

Gov. Gray Davis said Thursday that California could be 5 gigawatts short next summer, roughly the power needs of 5 million homes. Others say the gap could be even wider, depending on what happens both in terms of weather and the power market in the next few months. And standing beside one of the few new power plants being constructed in the state, Davis pledged to speed up construction to ease the supply crisis that looms in just a few months.

"We will demonstrate that California can cut red tape, build more power and protect the environment," Davis said at a news conference within the 545-megawatt Calpine plant under construction southwest of Yuba City.

As Davis unveiled his scheme to speed up construction, political leaders in both houses of the Legislature pushed forward their own, similar plans, thus underscoring the urgency of the supply shortage that is one of the key elements of the state's energy crisis.

California hasn't built a major power plant in a decade, and it's been two-plus decades since serious amounts of new generating capacity were hooked up to the grid. We wound the power plant licensing process in miles of red tape in the 1970s -- largely in reaction to the nuclear plants then being promoted by utilities -- and local opposition to plant siting added to the gridlock. Recently, the San Jose City Council rejected construction of a similar Calpine plant -- even though Silicon Valley's thirst for electric juice has skyrocketed. We assumed that the easier-to-build plants in other Western states would feed enough juice into California to take up the slack.

Having made ourselves vulnerable, we Californians -- acting through our elected politicians and their appointees -- then compounded the problem by forcing California utilities to sell off their existing plants, mostly to out-of-state corporations. Competition would bring more construction, we were told. It's meant, instead, that we're paying 10 or more times as much for power as the utilities were charging when they owned the plants.

Davis' words about bringing new plants on line in record time, and those of legislators, sound good. But environmental skepticism about a new power plant construction program remains strong, and the timelines sound awfully ambitious, given the long lead times for construction and the shortage of generating machinery.

Will they be just words, or will they mean more electrons when they're needed? This aspect of the utility crisis, like all others, is just too dicey to predict.

DAN WALTERS' column appears daily, except Saturday. Mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852; phone (916) 321-1195; fax: (781) 846-8350 E-mail:

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-- Martin Thompson (, February 09, 2001

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