A blackout on answers

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Wednesday, March 21, 2001


A Blackout on Answers

Davis needs to do a better job in communicating to Californians about the electricity crisis. In the absence of that, cynicism grows.

The oil shocks of the 1970s, from the Arab oil embargo to the Iran-Iraq war, were dead simple compared with the California power shortage. Then, the problem was a lack of imported oil and the chief symptom was long lines and high prices at gas stations. Politicians urged conservation: Turn down the heat, drive fewer miles, buy more efficient cars. People understood the cause of the crisis and the benefit of their actions.

Today it's a different story and a damnably complicated one that gives consumers no place--or actually, too many places--to focus their anger. The last two days of rolling blackouts, including previously exempt Southern California, have not reduced power demand, or at least not enough.

Consumers are suspicious: Are out-of-state power companies holding back production? Did utilities really not have enough money to pay alternative energy producers--the little guys who, combined, could produce enough power to prevent the blackouts? And what happened to long-term power contracts, the state-bargained deal that was supposed to stabilize the crisis?

The frustrations are vast, and there are too many gaps in the story. If it's just a pack of thieves creating an artificial shortage, as even some consumer organizations charge, why should anyone sacrifice to conserve? That, in a nutshell, is the problem that Gov. Gray Davis, the state Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission face.

Davis, for one, has to level with the public and stop acting as if he can fix the crisis. He has proved he can't, at least not without reductions in usage and, most likely, rate increases. If Davis, who is notoriously averse to delivering bad news, had leveled with the public about the fragility of the current system, the last two days of blackouts statewide (except in places with full municipal power, like Los Angeles) might not have come as such a shock.

The Legislature tried and failed earlier to solve the alternative energy producers' nonpayment problems with a very complicated bill. Tuesday night, Davis and legislators announced a simpler plan that would set lower, more flexible rates for alternative power but also force the utilities to pay for future purchases.

Which leads to the utilities themselves. With the state shelling out billions for power from the major generators, how could Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric still not have the cash flow to pay the alternative producers? That motley collection of biomass, solar, wind and cogeneration companies has been shutting down for nonpayment--some of them because natural gas suppliers have cut them off.

PG&E has made some payments, but SCE has paid zilch, though a spokesman says it hopes to strike a deal to start paying this week.

Without enough honest information, conspiracy scenarios fill the holes. Bad news is better than no news, something Davis seems not to quite realize. By today or Thursday, the weather will cool and some plants taken down for repair will come back online. The blackouts may cease but the crisis will be just as deep as it was Monday and Tuesday. It is up to Davis to do a better job of persuasively explaining why. Otherwise, the cynicism grows.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), March 22, 2001

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