California's PG&E: a Gulliver beset by Lilliputians

Like giant Gullivers being swarmed over by Lilliputians determined to restrain them, America's private electric utilities are hard put to know how to deal with their critics.

The San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) is one of many utilities across the United States embattled by consumers up in arms about rising rates and by antinuclear-power groups.

PG&E, which serves almost 10 million residents in central and northern California, had hoped to get its first major ''nuke'' on line early this year. But a combination of determined opposition by those who want no more nuclear plants built and at least one blunder by the firm seems likely to delay full operation of the first plant - one of two units now being built at Diablo Canyon on the central California coast near San Luis Obispo.

Meanwhile, after a large rate hike was granted in 1981 by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), some residential customers saw their electric bills double and even triple during what has been one of the wettest and coldest winters here in the last half-century.

Those hardest hit by the rate increases are people with ''all electric'' homes. Only a few years ago power companies all over the US were encouraging Americans to heat with electricity. Now many companies, including PG&E, are providing incentives for customers to utilize alternative energy systems such as solar heating and conservation methods such as heavy insulation.

Recently in the San Francisco area, entire neighborhoods have staged one-hour evening ''blackouts'' - switching off their electricity as a gesture of their displeasure with both PG&E and the PUC.

One retired couple in the Sierra foothills, Ed and Marty Burckhard of Oakhurst, took out their meter and gave it back to PG&E when the two-month bill for their all-electric house nearly tripled (from $109 in November to $324 in January). Sitting idle, in addition to their range, furnace, and lights, are their dishwasher, garbage compactor, microwave oven, power scrubber, food processor, ice cream machine, two toasters, and waterbed heater. They use a gasoline-powered generator on their nearby camper to run a small refrigerator and operate the washing machine occasionally.

Few consumers can go to this extreme. But they can collectively put pressure on the PUC. Under such pressure last week, the agency told PG&E to put into immediate effect a rate reduction of some $100 million that the utility planned for April 1. The reduction was made possible by increased hydro power production as the result of the heavy winter rains.

Major beneficiaries of the reduction will by the heavy users -- industries. For the householder who consumes 500 kilowatt-hours a month, the reduction will amount to 86 cents a month.

Such seeming inequities cause consumers to see ''Gullivers'' such as PG&E as menacing monsters rather than benign giants.

Despite their large public relations staffs, giant public utilities like PG&E too often take actions that affect their customers without explaining their reasons.

It's a habit that began to take root soon after Tom Edison demonstrated the magic of generating electricity; in recent years, it has contributed to the problems and delays involved in building nuclear plants.

Impatient with protesters whose objections at least sometimes are based on misinformation, the companies building nuclear power units have gone on the defensive. In some cases -- Diablo Canyon one of them -- the plant sites have become virtual defensive garrisons.

The California utility began planning its big nuclear facility in the 1960s. The original site was to be at Nocomo Dunes. But at the urging of environmentalists, PG&E shifted to its second choice, Diablo Canyon. Originally, the company was thinking of as many as six reactors at the site; now it will be satisfied if it can get the two nearing completion on line in the early 1980s.

What happened in 1971 is typical of the kind of problem that has afflicted the nuclear industry. Although PG&E had conducted what a spokesman terms ''the most thorough seismic studies ever done for a nuclear plant,'' two geologists announced in 1971 a hypothesis that there was a ''major, active'' fault just offshore from Diablo Canyon. And in 1975 the US Geological Survey said that a major quake of 7.5 on the Richter scale was possible in the area. This led to changes in the plant - new concrete buttressing, additional interior walls, new floors of stronger steel, and extra supports for other elements in the reactor chambers.

Last fall a young engineer for PG&E discovered what has become widely known as one of the most embarrassing blunders in an industry that has had more than a few: Someone had used the wrong plans and seismic safety supports had been put in the wrong places.

Although corrective work already is well along, the mistake resulted in another series of lengthy hearings, another blow to public confidence in the nuclear power industry and the safety of reactors, and an upsurge of opposition to the licensing of Diablo Canyon.

There is general agreement among those who carefully study the energy situation in the US that nuclear power is in deep trouble. With roughly 70 plants in operation now, plans to build another 70 to 80 are in serious jeopardy. Some already have been abandoned, including two in Washington that will effect utility rates in four Western states, including California.

Yet even energy planners who worry that nuclear power is being halted in its tracks include a sizable contribution by such plants in their projections of US electricity output for the next 20 to 25 years. They admit that even if the environmental problems involved with greater use of coal-fired plants are met, not enough such units can be provided to make up the difference. The alternative is continued heavy dependence on foreign oil to generate electricity.

What about consumers who already feel the cost of electricity threatens to pauperize them? In February 1980, the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance published a study on ''Electricity Prices in the 1980s'' in California. It stated: ''PG&E rate-payers would pay an additional $1.68 billion in 1985 if the Diablo Canyon power plant is not in operation. And this penalty would grow larger in subsequent years.''

Twenty years ago consumers were being told they faced an era of cheap, clean, safe nuclear power in which the amount of their income spent for electricity would see a sizable decline. Today, the electric industry almost plaintively argues that -- with at least some new nuclear facilities coupled with conservation and alternative energy systems -- rates can be kept from climbing astronomically.

A PG&E spokesman declares that the company is well aware of its obligations ''to provide reliable electric (and gas) service to customers, profit to the stockholders, and to protect the safety and well-being of the public.''

If the industry as a whole can convince its critics of the sincerity with which it approaches those obligations, then there may be a basis for progress, after all, in the nuclear power field.

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