Californians look for new ways to cool their heels

Jerry Van Eimeren is draining his hot tub. Greta and Joel Farnsworth are removing the halogen stake lights that ring their lawn. Jose Ramirez is buying backup generators for his dry-cleaning business.

"The bubble-jets circulating water through my jacuzzi were socking my energy bill so hard I am pulling the plug on them for now," says Mr. Van Eimeren, a website designer. "I'm also realizing that for every watt of power I use, someone else in the state may have to do without."

The prospect of rolling blackouts across California - expected to intensify with the advent of hotter weather in May - is bringing citizens and communities together to stare down a common foe: uncertain electrical supplies.

As legislators finagle over the fine points of energy policy, electricity customers are hammered at daily, through newspaper and TV ads, to voluntarily cut total electricity use by 10 percent. Ideas include doing laundry in off-peak hours and unplugging that "wasteful" second refrigerator in the garage.

And Gov. Gray Davis promises that people who cut their electricity use 20 percent this summer over last year's level will get 20 percent off their electric bills.

Plied by such ads and incentives - and unsure how the crisis will play out - citizens and cities are scrambling to be ready for the unannounced moment when some faceless bureaucrat flips a switch that plunges them into temporary darkness.

"One of the more unsettling things about this crisis has been the fact that we can't give people a whole lot of notice," says Steve Hanson, spokesman for Southern California Edison. Most of the reason is that utilities don't actually know when peak usage will force them to resort to blackouts, although concern about crime also is a reason officials don't announce blackout "schedules" in advance. "Sometimes, it might be as little as 10 minutes' notice," says Mr. Hanson.

That's not very reassuring to dentists about to drill, restaurants with souffles to chill, and motorists with empty gas tanks to fill. But like the state's encounters with drought, freeze, and earthquakes in the 1990s, the current crunch is also being seen as a crisis full of opportunity.

"Like the Y2K computer threat that the nation scurried to prepare for, this is a major prescription for civic readiness that is waking people up, letting them know what is really at stake and what they can do about it," says Dallas Jones, head of the California Office of Emergency Services.

The state already has had one long round of practice drills. In late March - with electricity use still only 50 percent of summer peak - the state's power grid was so stressed that officials cut power to 50,000 customers in 40 California cities, darkening schools, hospitals, and traffic signals.

Prepping for outages

No one was cut off for more than two hours straight, say authorities. But the problems that arose then have led to months of preparation for summer.

* Sacramento officials have approved the installation of six wading pools to lure residents out of air-conditioned homes with the offer of alternative relief.

* Santa Monica officials are notifying residents to carry extra gasoline in their cars and get extra cash from ATMs - two electricity-dependent services that have created hassles in recent blackouts.

* Several cities, including Modesto and Laguna Hills, have already identified the worst intersections where stoplights go out, and are laying plans to deploy traffic officers there if a blackout happens again. Other cities are readying plastic stop signs to put into place at the most dangerous crossroads.

On Internet websites, advice and admonitions abound. In a pinch, frozen peas work just as well as ice to cool you down, says Modesto. Don't push the pedal to the metal at intersections with no police or working lights, warns San Francisco. Turn off unneeded lights, reset heating and cooling thermostats, switch off computers, and use drapes to trap cool air inside at night and let out warm air during the day, say others.

"People are looking into energy use with a kind of vigor that they never have before, both to help out the general situation but also to save themselves a bundle," says Linda Yamauchi, consumer affairs director for Southern California Edison. "We're actually quite thrilled by that."

In many parts of the state, energy costs have tripled, and in some cases gone even higher. Moreover, the likelihood of an extended period of high prices seems greater.

By most accounts, the state's electric utilities are doing their share of consciousness-raising, too. Many have extensive websites that answer questions such as how to install a generator properly, and they are reaching out to customers most at risk from outages, such as elderly patients who rely on breathing machines or other healthcare appliances.

"We are visiting medical facilities, as well as notifying others to let them know of the importance of preparing for these situations," says Ms. Yamauchi. "We are letting them know to have their own backups ready and not to rely on us."

Peeved - and worse

Among the electricity-using public, reaction to all of this ranges from mild inconvenience to strong irritation.

"I'm a little upset that this whole deregulation thing has come out of the blue," says the hot-tubless Van Eimeren. At the mall he just visited, every other row of overhead lighting is turned off. The local car dealer keeps exterior lights turned off, with the unintended consequence that no one can tell if the dealership is open.

While acknowledging that energy conservation makes sense, consumer groups are warning that how users respond here could affect reliability and price problems in other states.

"Conservation will help, but it won't dig us out of the hole we are in," says Michael Shames of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego. To avoid what he calls "long-term manipulation of California's electricity market" by the major electric producers, he aims to form consumers into a buyers' cartel.

He also is calling for changes in the way blackouts are implemented. "Blackouts can be organized" so customers get "sufficient notice," Mr. Shames says. "The benefits of knowing when the power will be turned off are considerable. Increased crime risks can be offset by targeted police deployment."

One last idea consumer groups such as Shames's are pushing is state purchase of thousands of new, efficient air-conditioners. Under the plan, youth groups, utility employees, and other volunteers would move systematically through the hot, central valleys of California, replacing old air conditioners.

"California is not alone, just ahead of the curve," says Shames. "If weather does not cooperate, there may be similar problems in New England and the Midwest."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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