Summer looms as big worry

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Rolling blackouts across Northern California last week brought home the importance of the state’s troubled power supply. But people who know the energy business know the real crunch could
be six months away.

Cranking air conditioners during summer days cause the biggest
electricity drain of the year.

California’s power use can shoot up more than 10,000 megawatts in August, compared to January.

“We’re going to be having a candlelight summer, or this problem
is going to be solved,” said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the
Los Angeles-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Officials who oversee the state’s power situation say some
portions of the energy picture could improve by summer, while other parts could be worse, such as hydroelectric plants left ineffective because of a light winter rainfall.

According to a California Energy Commission report from November, there will be just enough power to make it through the summer, if temperatures stay in a normal range.

If the summer is unusually hot, the state may see Stage 2 emergency conditions, when large energy users on interruptible rate plans are asked to turn off power for periods.

If it is an outlandishly hot summer, the state will be flirting
with not meeting its power needs again.

“On a hellacious summer, we will have problems from the get-go,” Claudia Chandler, energy commission spokeswoman, said.

A dearth of large, new power plants built in the past 10 years — which coincided in part with a booming economy — is one issue. Nine plants have been added to the drawing board since the 1996 legislation that changed the rules for the state’s power industry.

But even the nearly 1,850 megawatts of new energy expected when the first of those plants come online this year already is plugged into the state’s calculations for summer.

Key to satisfying power demand this summer will be several California power generation plants that currently are shut down. These plants can churn out 10,000 to 11,000 megawatts, with some part of that feeding the state power grid.

Some state officials say they are taking generators’ word that
plants are down for maintenance issues. More than half of
California’s power plants are older than 30 years, according to
Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit group that manages the flow of electricity along the state’s power-line transmission grid.

“You can’t continue to run these power plants this old at that
rate . . . and not expect to experience” breakdowns, Dorinson said.
But other officials and consumer advocacy groups say they suspect plant owners are choosing not to make power — either because they fear California’s near-bankrupt utilities will not pay them or because they want to drive up prices.

Plants are often down for maintenance, but not to this degree,
Chandler said.

“You certainly don’t want to think anyone is doing this just
because they want to make money,” Chandler said. “But the question remains: Why 11,000 megawatts (down for maintenance), when normally this time of year it’s 3,500 megawatts?”

The state Public Utilities Commission inspected the downed plants last month, but it has not yet released a report on its findings.

Consumer watchdog groups, such as Washington, D. C.-based Public Citizen and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, allege price gouging by generators and call for the state to regulate the plants.

“There’s a strong possibility they are not operating plants at
full capacity or shutting them down to drive prices higher,” Tyson
Slocum, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, said.

Power generators have said more power plants have been shut down for maintenance this winter because they had deferred overhauls last summer to meet the high demand for electricity then.

Even if the downed plants are working this summer, the water
power situation could bring headaches. Low river and dam levels
will not allow hydroelectric plants to operate at full capacity.

“We won’t know until we get through winter,” Dorinson said. “It
will be a problem unless we get more rain, and a lot more of it,

But the state Energy Commission said the West’s rainfall is only
off 15 percent and is “within the range of meeting normal,”
Chandler said. But, she added, “It is a concern. I’m not trying to
dismiss that.”

State officials and utilities said the answer has to include
construction of more power plants and conservation efforts by

“We’re still short on generation. For the next couple summers,
it’s going to be difficult,” Dorinson, of the Independent System
Operator, said.

“I know everybody wants it to be over with,” he said. “But there
is no quick fix.”

Consumer Watchdog
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