Keep your eyes on the money.
The numbers are staggering.
Since stepping in to buy power for debt-ridden private utilities, California has been picking up a whopping tab averaging about $2 million an hour, 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
The spending has been continuous for roughly a month now, with no immediate relief in sight.
California’s total will approach $2 billion by the end of February. That figure doesn’t include billions more the state could spend on everything from energy conservation efforts to paying a portion of the utilities’ debts.
And costs for buying energy on the spot market are expected to keep rising until state Treasurer Phil Angelides can secure short-term financing, perhaps next month, that is expected to be replaced by long-term revenue bonds in May.
The plan is to reimburse state coffers once the revenue bonds are sold, thus avoiding significant hits to the state budget, but meanwhile officials are diverting hundreds of millions in funds targeted for programs.
Among them: $200 million to line the All-American Canal near Mexico, $135 million for Cal Fed water projects benefiting the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, $70 million for flood protection, $35 million for a Coachella Valley groundwater project, and $30 million for park acquisition and expansion.
Officials say the diversion has not immediately affected the projects, however, because most were not scheduled to begin immediately.
As California grapples day after day with the energy crisis, residents may ask themselves a simple question: How much is $2 billion?
If you lived for 2 billion minutes, you’d die at the ripe old age of 3,805.
You could hire more than 44,000 new police officers for $2 billion, or place more than 50 new teachers in each of California’s public school districts.
You could run the state’s capital city, Sacramento, for nearly four years, every department from police to fire to public works.
You could buy nearly 6,000 fully equipped transit buses, capable of carrying 240,000 riders in a bumper-to-bumper line from the Capitol Rotunda to roughly the Carquinez Bridge.
Veteran legislators say the energy crisis is swallowing money at an unprecedented rate – and is like pouring money into a hole. It’s not beefing up state services but simply preserving what we’ve had for decades: The ability to turn on lights whenever we want.
“We’re getting into these deals, and we don’t know where we’re going,” said Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks. “There isn’t an end game. There isn’t a strategy to get California out of the energy business.”
But Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, said there is, indeed, a grand plan and it consists of three parts: promoting conservation, boosting power generation and stabilizing rates through long-term contracts at bargain rates.
“They’re pieces of a puzzle,” Maviglio said. “When you put them together, they constitute an end game.”
California’s planned $10 billion revenue bond issue appears to be the largest in U.S. history, according to Angelides, who said the total could rise to $17.5 billion depending on interest rates and other factors.
The bond is not without risk, however, and one key is for the state to secure multiyear energy contracts quickly: If offers fail to meet expectations in length, price, quantity or timing, the state could be stuck with a crushing financial burden and no quick fix.
The Davis administration has declined to discuss details of the contract offers it has received, saying disclosure could hamper negotiations.
But Maviglio said, “We’re making enormous progress,” adding that the state is on schedule to strike the energy deals without delaying the bonds.
Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said officials must not get so focused on energy that they lose sight of other priorities.
“There are other important needs in California – in education, transportation, health care, mental health, foster care and other areas,” he said.
“Our response to the energy crisis is necessary, but we need to make sure we get our money back so it can be spent on other things,” he added.
Steinberg and other officials say the huge sums being poured into power purchases could have a chilling effect on other budget-related decisions, or legislation, until the long-term bonds are sold and officials know the terms, timing and payback details.
Legislators also worry about indirect fallout from the energy crisis, including the possibility that large businesses will be discouraged from building, expanding or relocating in California because of power-related fears.
By stepping in to buy short-term power for two debt-ridden private utilities – Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. – the state has ended the immediate threat of power blackouts.
But there’s no guarantee that blackouts won’t occur this summer, when demand could exceed supply and the state’s planned $10 billion in revenue bonds for long-term power purchases is only a fraction of potential costs from the energy crisis.
Adding to the state’s bill could be:
* A plan to ease the private utilities’ debt, which could reach $13 billion, by purchasing power transmission lines. The money would be raised through revenue bonds and repaid by charges to ratepayers.
* The cost of below-market energy contracts seized from the California Power Exchange by Davis under emergency powers. The exchange has billed the state $1 billion, but that amount is in dispute. Davis’ action kept the contracts from being auctioned off after the two utilities failed to make payments.
* State efforts to improve energy conservation measures and boost power generation. In his proposed state budget, Davis set aside $1 billion for energy-related improvements.
The governor consistently has said the energy crisis can be resolved without harming state coffers or spawning major rate increases by using revenue bonds that will be repaid by the utilities – not by California taxpayers – over a period of perhaps 10-15 years.
Even under the most optimistic scenarios, however, some increases seem inevitable.
A temporary 9 percent rate increase approved by the state Public Utilities Commission in January is expected to be made permanent, officials say. And Assembly Bill 1x, which was signed into law Feb. 1, allows future rate hikes for businesses and residential customers using more than 130 percent of a baseline amount of electricity.
“In the real world, you never hit all your assumptions,” he said.
Under the worst economic scenario for ratepayers, debt-reduction talks with the state would collapse and the utilities would win a court order paving the way for potential double-digit rate increases to recover their losses.
Consumer advocate Douglas Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the simple truth is that billions can’t be spent without someone getting a bill: Either ratepayers get hit with increases or today’s debts must be borne by the next generation.
“You’ve got an extraordinary bill that has to be paid and a political interest in hiding it, so you spread it out so the children of ratepayers will have to blame the children of politicians – not the politicians themselves,” Heller said. “It’s just passing the buck.”
Apart from the direct cost of electricity, officials fear the economy and job market could suffer for years to come if businesses become less bullish on California or if families cut their spending due to rising gas and electricity bills.
“History supports the view that we can absorb a short-term ‘price shock’ in the cost of utilities without irreparable damage,” said a recent analysis of the energy crisis by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
“However, a ‘supply shock’ lasting 12 months or more could be devastating to consumer and business confidence and must be avoided as a matter of national urgency,” the report concluded.