Some feel in dark on power crisis after utility backs holiday lighting

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The Fresno Bee

One issue on the street this holiday season seems something like belief in the anti-Santa. Do you or did you believe ardently enough in the energy crisis to go without Christmas lights?

Just when you think it’s unpatriotic and uncaring to burn holiday lights, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the agency with hands on the state’s electrical power grid say go ahead, turn them on.

Keep conservation in mind, they say, but you don’t need to impose a total blackout.

There seems to be fewer front-yard displays around Fresno than in days before the energy crisis. Some people doubt that the crisis was genuine. Proving that it was genuine or contrived is as difficult as proving the existence or nonexistence of Santa.

PG&E says the crisis was real but has diminished to the point that holiday lights are OK. In the wake of Sept. 11, the utility’s Web site says, we can turn on:

“Americans have come together in a show of patriotism this year like no other in recent history. The holiday season is likely to reflect that feeling with an incredible array of lights and decorations.”

Just how we and PG&E got from blackouts and turnoff to “incredible array of lights” divides the utility from critics and from a quick sample of people rigging lights in Fresno.

PG&E does remind its 4.7 million electric customers to light up conservatively. Consider adding programmable timers. Use newer, more efficient lights. Avoid bulbs over 5 watts, and don’t light up before 7 p.m.

When you get down to the core question: Should we kill the lights? PG&E says not necessarily.

Driving around town, you see few lights so far. That may have to do with habits we learned a Christmas ago in the reported crisis.

Now natural gas prices are a fraction of what they were then. That means less expense in operating power plants. The economy is in the tank, which leads businesses to use less electricity. And people are conserving more.

On the street, Fresno people give their reasons to light or not to light, and most on either side express disbelief that the evaporated crisis ever was real.

State employee Rex Cowart never considered going without Christmas lights this year.

“I was real concerned this summer,” he says, “but it seemed to taper off.”

Ron Wilson, a retired phone company employee, illuminates tree trunks, pretend icicles and Santa’s electrically-powered waving arm.

He believes that power problems are under control, and alludes to terrorists’ attacks on the United States: “I think it is especially important this year that we get back into Christmas, back to normal.”

Wilson and others figure their displays run up monthly bills by $100 to $150.

In northwest Fresno, landscaper Joe Lombardi led his cul-de-sac neighborhood’s light display, which attracted sightseers for years and featured an airplane with rotating propeller.

Not this year.

Lombardi decided against his 25,000-light display because it was so much work. It had nothing to do with costs or conservation. He doesn’t believe there was a power shortage.

“I just think PG&E got into trouble,” he says. “Now I want to know why gas is so cheap.”

Douglas Heller, an energy consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, makes the power conspiracy argument from Los Angeles:

“Last year, the utilities tried to hold Christmas hostage as a way to get the state to bail out the companies. Now that the state has begun the bailout process and bought more energy than we will ever need, there is no need to hold Christmas or all of us hostage. We’ve given the utilities everything they wanted.”

At PG&E in Fresno, spokeswoman Liz Gomez recalls blackouts a year ago and rejects the conspiracy charge:

The California Independent Service Operator, which controls much of the state power grid, “told us that supply was low. Our message to customers came directly from ISO.”

Put the “should” question to the ISO about turning Christmas lights on or off, and you get no ironclad statement from spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle.

There were “severe supply issues” a year ago but not now, she says, thanks in large part to the people’s conservation. The public should keep in mind that electricity consumes natural resources, but as to whether to turn on Christmas lights, it’s now “up to the consumer.”

Have we all been taken on a sleigh ride from the dark side through a made-up crisis?

Landscaper Lombardi offers his blunt, unsatisfying answer: “We’ll never know.”

Consumer Watchdog
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