Californians avoid collapse of energy grid with voluntary consumption cuts

With reserve supplies of electricity at “dangerously low levels” and power cuts a risk, Californians headed calls for energy conservation, whilst the state governor battled to save two utilities from bankruptcy.

On 14 February, California’s Independent System Operator (ISO), the controller of the state’s power grid pleaded for voluntary cuts in power consumption to prevent the grid from collapsing. It was the 30th day of the power crisis engulfing the state (see related story). “Energy conservation is no longer an option in California,” said ISO spokesperson Patrick Dorinson. “Conservation has to be seen as a way of life every day in this state.” Customers appeared to heed the warnings and no large-scale blackouts resulted, US media reported.

Large-scale blackouts had been feared with cold weather permeating through the state so the ISO asked Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison, the state’s two biggest utilities, to urge major industrial customers to voluntarily reduce their energy consumption, which they did.

On the same day, California’s governor, Gray Davis, put together details of a rescue package to save the two major utilities from bankruptcy. The energy crisis has been blamed on the state’s partial deregulation of the energy market, freeing wholesale prices but capping the rates that utilities may charge consumers. This means that companies are now dependent on the government to buy most of their power supplies.

Davis announced that he is supporting moves for the state to purchase the 32,000-mile network of transmission lines from the two utility companies, which say they are $12 billion in debt, and is predicted to cost anywhere between $3 billion and $9 billion. “It doesn’t do us any good just to build power plants,” Davis announced. “We’ve got to get the maximum efficiency out of our existing transmission lines. So, in the short term, that is clearly the most important asset we can acquire.”

However, about 10,400 megawatts of electric generating capacity, enough for more than 10 million homes, was reportedly out of service during much of the same week for scheduled and emergency repairs and the state government requested a further $500 million to pay for an emergency programme of short-term power purchases, taking the total spent on the crisis to almost $2 billion. During the week it was also announced that logging waste is to be burned as another source of emergency fuel.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have criticised plans to increase electricity generating capacity by relaxing environmental regulations (see related story). “The current power crisis was not caused by environmental regulations and will not be fixed by relaxing those regulations,” said Matt Petersen, Executive Director of the NGO Global Green USA. “To provide reliable electricity in the coming year and decades ahead, California needs increased support for conservation, efficiency, and renewable generation.”

The group calls for the following actions in the wake of the crisis:

  • to support, what it calls “the most cost effective and immediate solution to the energy crisis”, namely conservation, efficiency and distributed renewables;
  • to provide additional financial incentives for renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaics and fuel cells;
  • to remove barriers and financial disincentives such as the inability to receive credit for energy produced on site, a process known as net metering;
  • to tncrease the dollars spent on public education and awareness of energy efficiency, conservation and renewables programs from the current $10 million proposed for the Department of Consumer Affairs to $75 million over the next 18 months.

“While Governor Davis also announced support for incentives for distributed, clean renewable energy sources, his proposals are far too limited,” said Petersen. “We need a robust strategy that makes renewable energy a priority along with energy efficiency and conservation. Clean, renewable sources of energy will go on line much quicker than fossil fuel plants. The Governor and the legislature should be advocating an investment of several hundreds of millions of dollars in this year’s budget to support solar PV and even fuel cells for homes and commercial buildings.”

California’s woes have also been blamed on a failure to build any major new power plants in the last 10 years, despite a rapidly growing economy and a population now numbering 34 million.

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