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No Power, Plenty of Pain

Wednesday, March 21, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


CALIFORNIA'S patchwork response to the energy crisis flunked its first major test this week. From the governor down to power companies, generators and consumers, there is plenty of blame for the lights flickering out.

The real crunch is expected to come this summer when the state's power appetite jumps by 50 percent. But a warm burst of spring on Monday led too many people to flip on air conditioners, a surge that the fragile system couldn't sustain.

It gets worse than this simple lesson of supply and demand. As yesterday showed, very little has changed since the energy shortage loomed last fall. Gov. Gray Davis has yet to come up with a commonsense package of answers.

The state Legislature is fuming at his secretive, high-handed strategy of signing confidential long-term power buys. Also, few legislators accept his untenable belief that no rate increases will be necessary. Neither do we.

Energy policy has become the tune of a one-man band, with the Senate and Assembly written out of the score. Meanwhile, the state has spent nearly $3 billion on power buys. Davis needs to open his door to the Legislature, if he expects cooperation.

Politics explains only part of it. In the last two days, a lightning storm of troubles worsened the situation. Alternative energy suppliers closed down, stiffed by the cash-poor major utilities pleading poverty. These green-power sources pour in 12 percent of the state's energy needs.

One answer might be to let these wind farms, geothermal plants and solar power generators sell directly into the power grid, not through the two major utilities.

A second trouble spot is the continuing issue of big generating plants sidelined for repairs. A third of the state's electricity-making plants were offline for overhaul on Monday. The resulting shortage pushed up prices and contributed to the last two days of rolling blackouts.

It also raised public suspicions. State energy authorities are right to question whether the plants were closed to create a costly shortage, or whether the repair work was genuine.

Washington needs to crack down harder on overcharges by power generators. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is right to push for controls that would bring price closer to cost in this imbalanced energy market.

Consumers, who take electricity for granted, need to wake up. Monthly electric bills frozen at 1996 levels don't encourage conservation and can't last, despite what Davis says. The state's conservation ethic has made California one of the country's most efficient users, but more must be done. Varying rates depending on the time of usage is one sensible suggestion.

The meat-cleaver approach of a blackout should be a wake-up call. The crisis isn't being solved. With summer coming, California may be in worse shape than it thinks.

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 24

-- Swissrose (, March 22, 2001

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