Solutions to Electricity Crisis

Date: 5 Jun 2001 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

THEprospect of being hanged in the morning, English writer Samuel Johnson counseled two hundred years ago, “concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

Therolling blackouts and spiraling electricity prices in California have concentrated the minds of policy makers across the country — on coming up with solutions to the impending summer crisis.

Themedia simply report on California’s shortfall of thousands of megawatts and limit the discussion to President Bush’s energy plan and Gov. Gray Davis’ plea for wholesale rate caps.

They’re missing the real story. California may need thousands of megawatts of generating capacity in the long run, but the rolling blackouts hit only a few blocks at a time. This summers’ electricity crisis, therefore, isn’t going to be dealt with in Washington or even Sacramento, but at the local and neighborhood level.

Indeed, local communities are already taking charge of their energy futures by acting quickly and creatively to ensure reliability and rein in electric rates.

Oneof the more popular strategies is also one of the oldest — public power. Many communities are taking a hard look at forming publicly owned utilities, like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which have made headlines by keeping rates low and the lights on. In 1999, according to the Department of Energy, customers who owned their utilities paid 18 percent less than customers of investor-owned utilities.

SanFranciscans will vote on an initiative in November to form a municipal utility district. Chula Vista, Santa Rosa and other cities are studying public power’s feasibility. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is trying to form a countywide public utility district that would purchase gas turbines to produce power locally, instead of having to rely on San Diego Gas & Electric. Orange County is also considering forming its own utility district.

Incumbent utilities typically fight tooth and nail to prevent cities and counties from forming their own utilities. To avoid a costly fight over the local distribution grid used to serve existing customers, this year the cities of Hercules in the Bay Area and Corona in Southern California formed utilities to deliver service only to new customers.

Corona’s new utility will build power plants to serve city operations and new neighborhoods. Hercules’ plan calls for the older two-thirds of its homes and businesses to retain their PG&E service and the newest third to be served by the city utility.

Conservation is another tried but true way to keep the lights on.

Riversideis partnering with its largest energy consumers to conserve megawatts. The University of California at Riverside has agreed to reduce its energy usage by more than 2 megawatts (1 MW of electricity can supply about 750 homes). The university has also agreed to lease three diesel generators, which together can produce 6 MW of power for the city.

Inexchange, Riverside will exempt the campus from rolling blackouts (a big priority because of delicate research projects conducted there), and will contribute more than $1 million toward a more efficient air-conditioning system and upgraded wiring.

Anotherstrategy is to install small, on-site generators at municipal facilities. The customer-owned utilities in Santa Barbara, Alameda, Healdsburg, Palo Alto and Santa Clara have all acquired portable backup generators that will only kick in during severe power shortages.

SantaBarbara’s “distributed” generators will be paid for through the municipal utility’s reserve fund, so customers will not pay a dime for their peace of mind.

“We’re going to be the masters of our destiny,” says Alameda Mayor Ralph Appezzato.

Mostencouraging is the cooperation that the looming summer blackouts have spurred among communities to meet their energy demands. Seven southern California cities are banding together to build a $220 million power plant in Burbank. The cities will split the planning, construction and operational costs in return for a guaranteed percentage of the new power.

San Marcos, one of the cities involved, will invest about $30 million.

“It is a lot of money for us to invest, but we think the risk is worth it,” says City Manager Rick Gittings. “Our biggest risk is in doing nothing. If we don’t act, then we will just continue to be at the mercy of what Sacramento and Houston wants to charge us for electricity.”

Inthese heady post-deregulation days, cities are living up to their label as “laboratories of democracy.” Only when authority is vested with the citizenry, or as close to it as possible, can we be guaranteed that our electric system will be as democratic and responsive as possible.

David Morris is vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.