Voltage rising in California's kilowatt country

Kern County, already rich in oil derricks, is busy building the power plants that could ease Golden State crunch.

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At first glance, it looks like George Lucas meets the Indianapolis 500.

Futuristic facades rise from the sand, while scores of electric carts, bulldozers and earthmovers circle at frantic speeds.

Here, on what could pass as a set for the next Star Wars movie, 800 workers are racing 10 hours a day, seven days a week to construct something that Californians need and want - for the moment, at least - even more than another Hollywood sequel: a reliable power plant.

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It's one of four generating plants being developed in California's Kern County - already the state's unofficial energy "back lot."

Out of sight to most Californians, and unheard of to most Americans, this forbidding stretch of desert could end up providing much of the solution to the state's world-famous shortage of megawatts.

"This is the West Texas of California. It's got an historic culture of blue-collar work in oil, natural gas, and now electricity," says Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Edison International, which co-owns a newly opened power plant 10 miles up the road. "These folks are rightly proud of their history and role in the state's economy - and this crisis will continue to bring that out."

Like America in the early 1970s, trying to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, California is trying to cut into the 38 billion kilowatt hours of electricity that it imports from out of state.

Such out-of-state producers, claims Gov. Gray Davis, have gouged state consumers with $8.9 billion in overcharges. A federal judge recently rendered the opinion that overcharging has occurred, but put the estimate at $500 million to $1.2 billion. Litigation in coming months will attempt to sort out those details and determine whether Californians deserve rebates.

Buzz of bulldozers

While litigation will revisit the past, Kern County in many ways represents California's power future. The nondescript brown hills are alive with new interest in energy development, including oil fields, transmission lines, power plants, switching stations.

"We are really enjoying the surge of activity out here, because it's bringing people, employment, and money," says lifelong resident Kimberly Ewing, who grew up in McKittrick and still lives three miles from the McKittrick Hotel -once run by her grandparents.

Compared to heavily populated coastal areas, this county has fewer people (pop. 662,000) to oppose energy development, and many who welcome it as part of a long history.

The area's energy heritage is palpable in black-and-white pictures that still adorn the walls of McKittrick Hotel here, in exhibits at the West Kern Oil Museum in nearby Taft, and in a landscape dotted with hundreds of bobbing oil pumps.

In 1915, half of all the oil in California came from a single oil field here - and the state led the nation in oil production. Today, four of the largest oil fields in the US are still here.

"We're sort of zoned for energy," says Jack Sherman, a supervisor for Torch Rig Services. His company demonstrates a growing synergy between oil and electric companies. Thousands of oil wells here operate with the help of steam left over from nearby power plants. The steam is piped across the desert and sunk into the ground, where it heats up crude beneath the surface, making it easier to extract.

But it's volts, not barrels of crude, that inspire the biggest interest today.

At a time when civic groups have recently defeated power plants in San Jose, South Gate, and San Diego, Kern County has approved 5,000 new megawatts - more than the state now imports, and enough to supply 3 million residents.

"Kern county has been a breath of fresh air for the state during its current crisis," says Peter Mackin, senior planner for the Independent Systems Operator (ISO), which runs most of California's power grid.

Not that air quality is unscathed. Farmers in the mammoth Central Valley to the north lament a dingy haze that is generated mostly in the oil refineries of Bakersfield, and National Park officials complain of obscured vistas as far away as 500 miles.

But the newer power plants make it under the radar of environmental opposition, partly because stringent state regulations mandate that they run cleaner than existing plants.

Walking by one of two towers at the newly opened Sunrise Plant here, fired by natural gas, one can see virtually no pollutants rising into the air.

Needed: financial health

At the plant's June 27 christening, John Bryson, chairman of co-owner Edison International, praised the operation as an example of what "healthy" utilities could provide. It was a pointed reference. Though the parent company is healthy, Edison's California subsidiary teeters near bankruptcy. Another utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, filed for bankruptcy a few months ago.

But while Mr. Bryson and others say there is no reason more plants couldn't be built just as fast as Sunrise (up in a rapid six months), there are other elements limiting Kern county's ability to bail out the state crisis.

One is transmission lines. Regardless of how many power plants go up, the grid has only so much capacity. Putting up new wires is slowed by years of site assessment and public approvals. The state is working overtime to better use existing lines and create incentives for more to be built. Until then, sporadic blackouts are likely to continue.

Meanwhile, Kern County is adding much-needed electricity to the state's hungry grid. "All over California, you are hearing people cry out for power but yet at the same time say, not in my back yard," says Edison's Mr. Kelley. "Here, they are saying, yes, put it here in my back yard."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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