Power use continues to decline

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Power use continues to decline

Conservation yields increasing electricity savings, boosting hopes of fewer blackouts

BY PAUL ROGERS, Mercury News

Reaching a new high in conservation as the hottest summer months loom, Californians used 12.3 percent less electricity this June than last June, according to new state figures scheduled to be released today.

The conservation numbers, obtained by the Mercury News on Saturday, show a steady increase in electricity savings through the first half of this year.

Experts said Saturday that the state's embrace of energy conservation offers growing hope that there will be fewer blackouts this summer than predicted, especially after new power plants open this month and in August.

The figures illustrate that California residents, whether motivated by a fear of higher utility bills or simply by civic duty, are making a huge dent in electricity demand by turning off lights, installing energy-efficient equipment and cranking down air conditioning.

The difference, for example, between electricity use on the heaviest day in June 2000 and this June is 3,834 megawatts, according to the data compiled by the California Energy Commission. That is equal to the output of seven large power plants or enough electricity for 2.9 million homes.

``Californians are doing a phenomenal job of conserving energy,'' said Gov. Gray Davis, whose staff is scheduled to release the numbers at a mid-morning news conference. ``I asked Californians to reduce electricity usage by 10 percent, and they have come through big-time.''

The conservation trend follows similarly encouraging numbers from May, when state residents reduced electricity use by 11 percent from May 2000. ``But we cannot and will not be complacent,'' Davis added. ``Every kilowatt saved is money we keep in California and out of the pockets of out-of-state generators.''

Experts said Saturday that the popularity of conservation is a key reason California has not experienced any rolling blackouts in nearly two months, despite the warming weather. They cautioned, however, that the Golden State also has been lucky.

Despite some hot weather in June, there have been no extreme temperature spikes over wide areas that would drive up air conditioning use and strain power resources. It was a heat wave on June 14, 2000, that led to the Bay Area's first blackouts.

``This is very encouraging,'' said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute. ``But when the state faces the next big scorcher, are we going to be able to conserve enough to get through it?''

Borenstein said state officials, especially the Public Utilities Commission, should be doing more to reduce demand from business and industry, which use about 65 percent of the electricity in the state. Programs are only just getting started to install real-time meters at factories, for example, a key pricing strategy to lower energy use during peak hours, he noted.

Yet after months of bad news caused by a botched experiment with deregulation, soaring natural gas prices and an unusually high number of power plant breakdowns, California heads into the summer with some rare good news.

Apart from the growing rates of conservation, on Wednesday Davis flipped the switch on a 320-megawatt power plant near Bakersfield, the largest to come online in 12 years. On Monday, a larger 550-megawatt plant owned by Calpine will open in Sutter County. And then July 9, another 550-megawatt plant, also built by Calpine, is set to fire up in the Contra Costa County town of Pittsburg.The state has approved 13 other plants that are expected to be online within two years.

``California is closing the gap between supply and demand,'' said Bill Highlander, a spokesman for Calpine in San Jose. ``We want to get to the point where we can use electricity when we want to and have it be affordable,'' he added. ``To get those things to happen, you need to have an oversupply, a competitive situation. That's where we'll get eventually.''

The state energy commission this year estimated that California had a shortfall of up to 5,000 megawatts this summer. How close is the state to closing that gap now? The three new power plants will deliver nearly 1,400 megawatts. And conservation results in roughly 3,800 megawatts of savings.

But Claudia Chandler, a spokeswoman for the energy commission, said Saturday that doesn't mean the crisis is over. Power plant breakdowns, a reduction in electricity imports from the drought-parched Pacific Northwest and heat waves later this summer in California still could pose problems, she said.

``It's amazing how people have stepped up to the plate,'' she said. ``We're going to need that continued effort. Our message to people is don't let up!''

In June 2000, there were 10 days in which California's electricity demand exceeded 40,000 megawatts. This June, there was none, with the highest day recorded at 39,613 megawatts.

The governor, whose poll numbers sagged badly this spring as the state experienced six blackouts, has worked to convince the public that he is fixing the problem. Even though the energy commission had only completed its conservation figures through June 28 rather than the end of the month, he chose to release the figures on a Sunday, when the news would face less competition for air time on television and space in newspapers.

California's population has grown by about 500,000 since last June. As a result, the state adjusted the conservation numbers for economic growth, which reflects population and job growth. The numbers also are adjusted for temperature fluctuations. Unadjusted, the state used 8.3 percent less electricity this June, compared with last June.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), July 01, 2001

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