The kilowatt crisis: coming soon to a toaster near you
California's energy crunch may cause higher prices across nation as utilities rush to ship power to the West.
There are no definitive weather reports for summer, but energy officials in several areas of the country are already beginning to sweat.Skip to next paragraph
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Even without a scorching heat wave that could keep millions planted in front of their air conditioners, the most optimistic predictions of summer electricity output are "partly cloudy."
Add rising oil costs expected to push gas prices over $2 a gallon across the Midwest, and some officials are saying the United States is in its tightest energy crunch in a quarter century.
In practical terms, that means the West Coast can expect four months of rolling blackouts, like last week, when more than a million Californians had power shut off for hours at a time. Northeastern US power supplies are also expected to be tight, with a strain on electricity output that could force especially high utility bills - perhaps double the cost of last year - around New York.
And the four Northwest states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana) - already sacrificing the health of fish and wildlife, and sustaining aluminum plant shutdowns - are facing kilowatt shortages because of extended drought, forcing officials to divert all available water to the region's hydroelectric plants.
"The availability of electric power is the front-burner issue for most of the West, from now through fall," says John Savage, chief administrator for the Oregon Office of Energy in Salem.
The Golden State's aging and insufficient generation and transmission grid, alongside deregulation, is the main culprit for the electricity shortage. To gain stability - and please voters - the state in 1996 allowed the price of electricity to be fixed, but allowed wholesale prices to be set by the market. When supplies became short because of state growth and long delays in approving the building of power plants, wholesale prices jumped.
Fallout from this, combined with the drought affecting hydroelectric plants along the Columbia River, has made the region's situation acute.
"The transmission grid for the entire West is so interconnected that whatever affects one state affects all the rest to some extent," says Jeff Burks, director of the Utah Office of Energy and Resource Planning in Salt Lake City.
In response, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has ordered a moratorium on plans to deregulate the utility industry in his state, and at least 20 other states have followed suit. Many are also rushing to build new power plants, dusting off alternative energy plans from wind, solar, and geothermal to new, coal- and gas-fired plants.
"California's crisis has become a huge concern in every kind of plan we are making," says Governor Guinn.
Although the transmission grids connecting the rest of the country are not as interdependent as those in the West, the California shortage could still affect other regions by driving up electricity prices. While other regions aren't facing shortages, the megawatts tend to go where the money is - and with high demand leading to higher prices in California, supply may migrate in that direction.