Summer forecast for California: darkness

Power shortage persists, sapping the state's budget surplus and making blackouts likely in hot months.

Spring feels tantalizingly close with the sunny days that have graced much of the Golden State this week.

But California's energy planners and politicians are as glum as a broken umbrella on a rainy day.

While the state has escaped its most severe energy alerts for the time being, the forecast for summer looks grim indeed.

Moreover, even as rolling blackouts threaten consumers, the electricity crisis has clouded the budgetary hopes of the state's ruling Democrats.

"There is uncertainty everywhere you look," says Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, a Sacramento advocacy group. "I'm afraid the energy situation could cast a long enough shadow that this will be a year of missed opportunities."

Putting together the state budget - the nation's largest - was supposed to be fun this year. With a projected $8 billion surplus, the questions were how much more to spend and what favored projects would benefit.

But the nation's economic slowdown of the past six months has now crept across the California border and joined forces with the rising costs of the state electricity bailout.

The result, says the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, is "the most unusual and challenging set of circumstances in recent history."

Put that railway on hold

Accompanying that grim characterization was an admonition that the Legislature not approve $2.3 billion in one-time expenses proposed by Gov. Gray Davis on initiatives ranging from environmental cleanup to intercity rail projects.

Wait, the analysts urged, until the nature and cost of the energy crisis are more clear.

So far, the state has spent more than $1.6 billion keeping the lights on.

That number will surely rise in the weeks ahead. Long term, the state has authorized $10 billion in bonds, the proceeds from which will be used to replenish the state treasury.

But exactly when those funds will flow back into the treasury is not clear, and the continuing political uncertainty over the whole energy crisis is apt to make many legislators hesitant to spend on new initiatives this year, say analysts.

For the moment, Mr. Davis is still trying to cut a deal with financially strapped utilities to buy their transmission lines, thus giving them money to pay their debts and the state an asset to show for its bailout efforts.

Meanwhile, the Governor's office has begun a full-court press for greater conservation across the state as it barters for long-term energy contracts that it hopes will keep a lid on consumer rates. Already, consumer electricity rates, though capped and far below what power has been selling for on the wholesale market, have jumped about 9 percent. And they are forecast to rise another 10 percent next year, even without the lifting of the cap.

The consumer's role

Conservation will be more than just a feel-good exercise for Californians. When summer comes, conservation could mean the difference between keeping the lights on and going dark.

Despite all the legislative activity in recent weeks to stave off rolling blackouts, there is only so much that can be done quickly in the vast California electricity market. It takes years, for instance, to site and build major new generating plants.

A stark forecast by the California Energy Commission projects there won't be enough electricity this summer to meet the needs of 5 million Californians. That doesn't mean all those people would be without power all the time. Rather, the state would be forced into curtailments that would roll across the state, affecting that number of people at any given time.

This scenario is far more serious than anything the state has experienced to date.

To stave that off, the governor is seeking to add generating capacity in the form of so-called "peaker plants," small units meant to be used primarily at times of peak demand.

But even if that plan flies, it won't fully solve the problem.

In a warm state like California, electricity demand can jump by half in the summer as residents crank up their air conditioners. With that increase in demand, some experts are predicting almost certain rolling blackouts.

The most powerful variable in the equation, say analysts, is consumer behavior. Conservation so far has helped the state avoid blackouts on some days when they seemed inevitable.

Davis has set a target of 10 percent conservation across California.

What worries many planners is the psychology of consumers. While many have lowered their thermostats this winter, a fatigue factor could set in.

Most alarming is the ongoing public skepticism about the crisis. Polls, like one earlier this month by the Los Angeles Times, show that most Californians still do not believe there is a true shortage of electricity. With that mind-set, a general call to arms for more conservation this summer could fall on deaf ears, say some.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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