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.

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.

Ripple effect

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.

As a result, "the California situation could, in fact, induce short-term problems all over," says Paul Claymore of the Houston-based Electric Utility Benchmarking Association.

No one can predict exactly where these problems will crop up, or when. That's because energy use is affected by so many variables, from weather to public behavior.

Rain, for instance, means more power generation for transmission lines, and possibly less demand for air conditioners - the giant culprit in causing blackouts. Sunshine, in modest amounts, can drive thousands of families to take outdoor vacations away from home electricity use - but in higher doses can keep them at home, playing Monopoly in front of house fans.

Most Western states are also dusting off voluntary and mandatory conservation plans. These programs, in turn, are affected by the public's perception of the crisis itself: what is causing it - and whether it really exists at all. One Los Angeles Times poll put public awareness of the situation at a surprisingly low level.

Is it really a crisis?

Indeed, even some experts claim the crisis has been overhyped.

Dan Reicher, an assistant secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, and now a visiting fellow at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., charges the situation has been "purposefully miscast" by the Bush administration, "to rationalize forays into new energy - i.e. oil development" and "roll back environmental standards."Mr. Reicher, along with Edward Smeloff, executive director of Pace Law School's Energy Project, in White Plains, N.Y., and many others, also charge utilities with "price gouging." The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently investigating charges that California suppliers have overcharged consumers by $6.2 billion since last May.

Count the computers

But others counter that the California crisis is absolutely real.

"How many computers do you have running in your house now compared to five years ago?" says Ken Czarnecki, senior director at the California Power Exchange in Pasadena. "We have not had sufficient power generation built in this state, as both the number of people has grown and the amount of electricity each uses has grown with it."

Legislators are huddling to urge more power production and put a positive spin on their plans.

Fixes include providing incentives to potential investors by speeding up regulatory red tape, encouraging development of energy by higher prices (but not high enough to anger consumers), and giving customers incentives to reduce consumption during peak hours.

"When the prices go up, energy developers see profits and start to fill the gaps," says Ed Mosie of the Bonneville Power Administration, a federally run consortium of companies that provide about 40 percent of the energy in the Pacific Northwest. "We think that will take three years to happen. In the meantime, it would be better to have more precipitation."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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