Lawmakers find no energy idea shortage

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Sacramento Bee

Nearly everyone has an idea for responding to California’s energy crisis:

Extend daylight-saving time. Build an Auburn dam. Study Rancho Seco’s nuclear possibilities. Subsidize more low-income residents. Encourage school conservation projects. Crack down on blackout-related looting.

Those and hundreds of other ideas are contained in a mountain of legislation awaiting action once Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers finish wrestling with two top priorities – preventing summer power blackouts and keeping private utilities from bankruptcy.

“You just take them as they come,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco. “If there are cows in your district, you say let’s use cow (dung for electricity). Then we sift through the ideas to figure out which ones work.”

The proposals range from a multibillion-dollar purchase of electricity transmission lines to a simple requirement that public utilities exclude law enforcement agencies, whenever possible, from blackouts.

One bill calls for replacing inefficient commercial refrigerators. Others would encourage better insulation and double-paned windows, promote natural gas drilling, provide solar incentives and give tax rebates to working families overwhelmed by energy bills.

“I receive a lot of calls from people in my district who have ideas,” said Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks. “For the most part, they’re already in bill form. There isn’t a great deal of brainstorming that still needs to be done. Now it’s a matter of getting started and getting it done.”

Any new legislation would supplement executive orders by the governor to streamline procedures for power plant permits, boost conservation efforts and negotiate long-term electricity contracts to help troubled private utilities reduce billions in debt.

Several critical energy-related bills already have been passed in response to industry emergencies:

* Senate Bill 7x allocated $400 million for emergency power purchases in January.

* Assembly Bill 1x plunged California deeply into the power-buying business by committing an additional $500 million for purchases and allowing revenue bonds – estimated at $10 billion – to be sold for long-term energy contracts.

* AB 5x changed the structure and makeup of the governing boards of the Independent System Operator and the Power Exchange, which control the state’s power grid and electricity trading.

* AB 6x required investor-owned utilities to obtain permission from the state Public Utilities Commission before selling their power-generating facilities.

In sorting through the piles of remaining legislation, Cox said, lawmakers should ask themselves a key question before committing state funds to any new energy program or subsidy:

“Does it put even one more electron into the system? In the short run, conservation is the answer. But in the final analysis, we can’t conserve our way out of this, we can’t regulate our way out, we can’t solve this crisis with more bureaucracy. The solution is more supply.”

Douglas Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the Legislature tends to be focusing on minutiae rather than looking at the big energy picture. Legislators should be setting limits as Davis continues negotiations on a deal to assist Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Heller said.

“Gov. Davis will come to them with a ‘global solution’ and they’ll be in the awkward position of not having developed one of their own,” Heller said. “Davis doesn’t have an energy policy – he has a bailout program. And future generations will have to pay for this fiasco.”

Heller and other critics say Davis’ strategy commits California to paying energy prices that will be excessive in the future. They also predict he will pay too much, and get too little, in return for helping utilities solve their money woes.

Phil Trounstine, Davis’ communications director, called Heller’s assessment dead wrong. “The governor does have an energy policy, both short and long term, that seeks three fundamental goals: stabilization, conservation and generation,” he said.

“The Legislature and the governor have a responsibility to fix this flawed deregulation scheme that California is saddled with,” Trounstine said. “That’s exactly what the governor has set out to do, and exactly what the Legislature has asked him to lead on.”

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the energy crisis hits everyone and all sides know that solving it is crucial.

“I think in the end there will be general consensus on what we need to do to move forward,” he said.

But party politics lurk in the shadows as decisions are made and effects assessed. Some Republicans complain their ideas get short shrift. Some Democrats complain their rivals do more finger-pointing than problem-solving.

“Politics? This is a house of politics,” Cox said with a shrug when asked about legislative game-playing. “You see the best and the worst of politics. Does it average out? That’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga said his colleagues are not being shut out of the process. But Democrats clearly are in the driver’s seat, he said.

“I’m not confident that the end result will be the best solution,” he said. “I think we have a number of great ideas. Whether they’ll get to the governor and get signed, that’s another matter. But we’ll survive this crisis.”

Others say Republican leaders are positioning themselves to blame Davis if electricity troubles persist. Asked about that possibility, Burton smiled and said: “It wouldn’t break their heart.”

Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, said the two parties have philosophical differences – Republicans tend to oppose buying transmission lines, for example.

But overall, Battin said, there is bipartisan cooperation on energy issues.

“We’re interested in getting the job done and not bickering on politics,” Battin said. “That’s not always the case.”

Consumer Watchdog
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