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The Daily News of Los Angeles

As California officials struggle to find a solution to the crippling power crisis, criticism has increasingly focused on tepid efforts to push conservation measures – the only short-term way to deal with energy shortages.

Faced with spending $ 1 billion in taxpayer money to minimize blackouts in coming days, Gov. Gray Davis went public Friday with an urgent plea to Californians to turn off unnecessary lights and take other steps to conserve electricity.

But critics said Davis should have used his bully pulpit much earlier and urged the state Public Utilities Commission, which raised residential rates 9 percent two weeks ago, to impose higher rates with penalties for overuse of electricity.

Public opinion polls show widespread dissatisfaction with Davis’ handling of the crisis and indicate broad support for strong conservation measures rather than rate hikes.

”The governor has lacked any kind of leadership in terms of urging people to conserve energy,” said Assemblyman Tony Strickland, R-Camarillo. ”By nature, he is very cautious and quite honestly, I think that is why we are in this state of emergency.

”We called for a special extraordinary session back in June on this energy crisis and Davis didn’t want to do it. I don’t think he really understood the severity of the problem, and that is why we are in this crisis today with rolling blackouts and a state of emergency.”

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean disputed the contention that Davis should have made stronger pleas for residents to conserve.

”Every statement the governor has made has referred to energy conservation and the entire administration is focused on reducing energy usage wherever possible,” McLean said.

There have been growing signs since Wednesday when the first blackouts occurred in Northern California that residents are making conscious efforts to reduce their electricity consumption.

At a news conference Friday, Davis applauded those efforts, saying people have been ”extraordinarily responsive.”

”We can do even more,” Davis added.

”Please, if you leave the room, turn the light off. If you are not using your computer, put it in the sleep mode. You can replace your current bulbs with less wattage. If you are leaving home for three, four or five days, unplug your television and appliances. Even when they are off, they are sucking power from our electricity grid.”

During his State of the State address Jan. 8, Davis called for residents to reduce consumption by 7 percent to 8 percent.

From Jan. 1 to Jan. 15, the state trimmed its energy use by 5 percent, or 511,803 megawatt hours. One megawatt produces enough electricity for about 1,000 homes.

”Californians are getting it,” Southern California Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said. ”By turning off the lights and reducing the thermostat, you can have a massive impact.”

Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said Davis has done a lot, but more is needed.

”He has used the bully pulpit to urge people to conserve. There has been a big reduction in megawatt demand, but it’s not enough to overcome the blackout, blackmail strategies of the energy companies.

”If there is a solid conservation plan, we could bust the energy cartel immediately.”

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School said the crisis ”blindsided” state politicians.

”The need for conservation slipped below the radar screen,” she said. ”This comes up periodically. It’s not always energy. Sometimes it’s gas or water. Frankly, politicians don’t talk about conserving until the pain and threat to their careers is worse than not talking about it.”

State Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, said lawmakers are working on energy reduction measures and that those will be an important part of the special legislative session.

”First, we have to stop the hemorrhaging,” Alarcon said. ”The $ 400 million approved (Thursday by state officials) makes sure the lights stay on. That provides 15 days of purchasing authority. It’s as important to save energy as it is to increase supply.”

In a similar move Friday, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan issued an immediate executive order to all 40 city department heads to cut back on energy use.

”We must take steps to ensure that we are both good neighbors and responsive citizens by using energy wisely and conserving whenever possible,” Riordan said.

While recognizing that the city’s Department of Water and Power has been immune from the state’s power crisis, Riordan said conservation measures would make more of the city’s surplus power available for sale to the state’s power grid. The DWP’s surplus generating capacity has been helping to relieve the shortfall during the current power crisis.

A Jan. 12-16 random poll of 1,001 Californians by San Francisco-based The Field Institute found Californians optimistically believe they can cut back 15 percent on their use of electricity.

”Whether that is realistic or not, that is the public’s view,” said poll director Mark DiCamillo.

The poll showed the public strongly opposes rate increases but would endure blackouts and accept strong conservation measures.

Of four proposals being tossed around in Sacramento, the only one that received majority support of 56 percent relates to the idea of asking customers to voluntarily cut back their electricity use by at least 10 percent and charging a penalty to those who fail to reduce their usage by this amount.

By contrast, Californians strongly disapprove by 78 percent to 20 percent of a regular program of ”rolling blackouts” as a way to enforce electricity usage cutbacks.

Two-thirds say the threat of higher electric rates is of greater concern than the threat of power blackouts.

Consumer Watchdog
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