How California lost its power

Residents are stunned - and embarrassed - as the state sees its first widespread blackouts since World War II.

Disasters in California are usually sharp and sudden.

Some arrive with pelting rain, some with flames, and others with shifting tectonic plates. As much as people complain, they know there is no one to blame but Mother Nature herself.

These days, though, the state is coping with something wholly different: a slow, simmering electricity crisis that was as telegraphed as a sunrise - and entirely man-made.

And in that predictability, yet helplessness, a public reaction has set in that is part anger, part astonishment, part resignation, and a dollop of something not often associated with the Golden State: humiliation.

"I never expect this in big and rich California," says Al Vu, who emigrated to the United States from Saigon and whose San Jose restaurant went dark this week when blackouts rolled through parts of the state. "It's difficult to believe," he adds.

"It's just more egg on our face," says Mill Valley resident and non-profit administrator Joel Kirsch. "We used to be No. 1 in education; now we're 48th or something. This reminds me of that. It hurts."

Indeed, after a decade of roaring prosperity in a state that now has more economic output than Italy and is home to the so-called New Economy, how can something as basic as electricity fall short?

The answer is complex, but the public's judgment is increasingly harsh.

"The idea of the lights going out is such a third-world concept," says Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. "People are just stunned."

By all indications, they will have to adjust. Gov. Gray Davis has declared a state of emergency, and the legislature is empowering the state to buy and sell power on its own, in order to, as the governor puts it, "keep the lights on."

With its reputation for profligate consumption, and swagger, California may not find a lot of outside sympathy. The incoming Bush administration has already made clear that the state's problem is the state's problem.

A conservation mindset

Yet for all its trendy, live-in-the-moment persona, the California population cannot be blamed for this crisis. California actually has been a pioneer in energy conservation and is one of the most energy-efficient states in the nation, according to conservation experts like Ralph Cavanagh of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

Some would even say the state got itself into this mess partly because of overly stringent air-quality controls that, along with a not-in-my-backyard attitude, have left California void of new power-generating facilities in recent years, even as demand and population skyrocketed.

Still, environmentalism is just one of many interests that intersect in the state capital, where leaders are expected to fashion policies that are balanced and in the long-term interest of the state's population. Many analysts say that was simply not done in this case.

"This is a tremendous failure of the common will in California," says Joel Kotkin of the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. "It's a product of a political culture that has lost its sense of the common good."

California-style deregulation restructured the state electricity industry in 1996 under former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. But despite promises that consumers would benefit, an in-depth reconstruction of the deregulation process by the San Jose Mercury News found that it was driven primarily by the interests of large industrial users and utilities.

The result has been rising prices for consumers and an insecure supply. Each day, Californians are told whether the state is in a Stage 1, 2, or 3 power alert. Stage 3 means rolling blackouts are likely.

Mr. Kotkin says the political system in California has lost important checks and balances and is increasingly responsive to special interests. Crafting a smart and balanced solution could be difficult, he says, with the state now virtually a one-party state. Democrats control both the legislature and the governor's office.

Whatever the deep causes, the electricity crisis is taking its toll.

Electricity has elbowed aside education as the state's gravest problem, according to a new survey of state residents this week by the Public Policy Institute of California.

And Davis's image is beginning to take a pounding. While the survey found the governor still has a 63 percent approval rating, an equal share of state residents disapprove of his handling of the electricity crisis.

The governor's policy thrust is to restructure California's electricity market, empowering the state to act as a direct purchaser and seller of power in hopes of stabilizing rates and supply.

In the short term, the utilities, the state power administrator, and politicians are looking primarily to the public to save energy and help the state scrape through the crisis, at least through this winter and next summer, until more locally generated power comes on line.

Doing their bit

Those pleas are not falling on deaf ears.

The Cafe Dolci in downtown San Francisco is not as glittery as it used to be. Owner Danny Lu has removed about half the cafe's track lighting and is replacing light bulbs at home with costlier, more energy-efficient ones.

Office-manager Pat McCarthy says she is planning to buy double-paned windows.

The blackouts that hit this week were the first widespread outages in the state since World War II. The economic cost is only a guess now, but when smaller blackouts hit Silicon Valley for a day last June, the toll in productivity and lost product was estimated at $100 million.

"Electricity in Silicon Valley is as basic as air to sustaining life," says Ruben Barrales, director of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a technology trade group.

Meanwhile, consumer activists worry that the ultimate humiliation could come in the form of sticking consumers with the cost of a bailout.

Security guard Bob Gefaell marvels at the notion of an electricity shortage in California in the winter, when temperatures have been hovering in the 50s under sunny skies. "All I know is we're going to pay," he says. "Eventually, we're going to pay."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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