Needed: power plants in California. But not here.

With the energy crisis, the debate sharpens over where to put undesirable facilities.

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Scott Scholz lives on the southern fringe of Silicon Valley, where freeway interchanges and shopping centers give way to small farms and ranches. "I like being on the outskirts of town, at the edge of things," says the soft-spoken computer-software programmer.

But in terms of California's simmering electricity crisis, Mr. Scholz is smack in the middle of things.

He and his neighbors are fighting the construction of a major new power plant, the kind of facility many experts say California needs - and has built too few of in recent years to ward off the blackouts now hitting the state.

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Critics call such opposition the "not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY)" syndrome. Supporters call it responsible civic activism.

Whatever its name, with California's blackouts, community activists like Scholz are seeing a new challenge to their role and legitimacy.

Here, as in communities around the country, the location of industrial facilities and power plants are longstanding targets of neighborhood concern. But in a time of crisis, the stakes rise, and some argue greater good should trump local preference.

Activists worry that view is taking hold here, and that California could be on the verge of a lot of bad decisions, borne in an atmosphere of near-panic.

The power plant, and the larger issue of localism versus broader interests, is now before the California Energy Commission. The commission will rule in the next few months on whether to override local opposition to the proposed new power plant on the southern edge of San Jose.

If they do so, it will be a major local event, but also important symbolically for those who say local rights should be paramount. The commission staff has already recommended an override, citing the "health, safety, and welfare of the people of the state and the state's economy."

Power plants on the drawing boards today cannot solve the current crisis. But critics note that delays in approvals, partly driven by local opposition, have helped put the state in its current bind. The San Jose project was proposed two years ago and still lacks final resolution.

A need for more power

Lack of adequate new power supply is a central issue in California's crisis. From 1996 to 1999, for instance, electricity demand in the state grew by 14 percent, while power supply grew 2 percent.

Now, though, activists fear they are being made the scapegoat for that problem, and the rush is on to approve new facilities that run counter to local interests.

"Seventy percent of power projects have no local opposition," says Elizabeth Cord of the Santa Teresa Citizen Action Group. "So blaming NIMBYism for the crisis is just wrong."

Ms. Cord's group is a lead opponent of the south San Jose facility and worries about the charged political climate around new plant proposals like this one. "There is a statewide panic on this. It's like a hysteria," she says.

Most analysts agree a spate of issues resulted in the near absence of new power plants for many years in California. While local opposition was a factor, so too was an unattractive investment climate and the uncertainties of the state's deregulation process, which began in 1996.

The proposed San Jose power plant would be a major one, generating 600 megawatts. Its sponsor is Calpine, one of the nation's fastest growing independent power providers. Because the Calpine project is on the edge of Silicon Valley, which has gobbled up electricity in recent years while not contributing an equal amount of new supply, it has become a poster child for the state's crisis.

But the issue is bubbling elsewhere, too. In San Francisco, several new plants are on the drawing boards and neighborhood activists are nervous.

"We rushed the decision on deregulation, and see where it got us," says John DeCastro of the Potrero Boosters, a 75-year-old neighborhood group in San Franciso. "Now, we're rushing to build power plants, with little regard for long-term consequences."

Mr. DeCastro and other residents of the Potrero neighborhood are attending hearings these days on a proposed addition to an existing power facility in their community. While he says he hasn't made up his mind on the new plant, he sees a process that is moving too fast and is influenced by pressure from the State Capitol to give new proposals the green light.

Land use or politics?

The south San Jose project violates the city's land-use policy and was unanimously rejected by the city council.

One major player in that debate is Cisco Systems, a technology giant and one of Silicon Valley's largest employers. Cisco is planning a new campus in the same general area as the proposed San Jose plant and has opposed the Calpine facility.

Calpine officials make no secret of their suspicion that Cisco's opposition, rather than the merits of the case, led to the city council's rejection.

Not so, says the office of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales. A spokesman for Mr. Gonzales adds that the city's decision should not be based on energy needs. "It's a land-use question," he says.

Generally, Calpine says the NIMBY tendency in California is rampant and projects take much longer to get off the drawing board here than in other states. "We encounter some level of NIMBYism in most of our projects," says Curt Hildebrand, the company's vice president of project development. "But California's NIMBYism is the strongest we've seen."

Activists like Cord point to their support of the Cisco campus to rebuff any notion that they are simply knee-jerk opponents of development.

And Cord even buys the notion that local opposition can go too far, at times. "I agree that at some point personal interests have to be overridden for the greater good," she says. "But in this case, we're very far from that point." She argues that even if the Calpine power plant is approved, it wouldn't be up and running for a couple of years at the soonest, when the supply crisis will likely have passed.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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