Monday, August 01, 2005

Little done to fix CA Power woes

Once the lights came back on in 2001, it was easy to forget how precarious California's energy situation was. Four years later, reality is giving us a reminder that we should have had the same sense of urgency after the energy crisis as during it.

"Southern California is hitting peaks [in demand] in July when, historically, it hits its peak in September," warned John Geesman, a member of the California Energy Commission. "Does that mean there's worse ahead?"

The forecast isn't promising. The U.S. Climate Prediction Service expects temperatures to be 5 to 10 degrees above normal across California and the West from August through October. If that prediction comes true, analysts say, there's a good chance for more power emergencies — and possibly blackouts — in the coming weeks.

The dire prediction comes four years after an energy crisis that cost California billions of dollars and helped unseat Gov. Gray Davis. It also drives home the fact that very little has been done in the intervening four years to help the state avert a repeat of that traumatic experience.

California still doesn't have enough power plants to meet the demands of its growing population and expanding economy — a situation made worse by the fact that much of the population growth is occurring away from the cooler coasts, in sizzling interior areas such as the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley. And much of the electricity that is being produced often can't be sent to where it's most needed because of the state's outdated, congested system of high-voltage transmission lines.

"The energy picture in California is not a whole lot prettier than it was under Gray Davis," said Stephen Conant, senior Western power analyst with Energy Security Analysis Inc.

And as tight as supplies are this year, experts expect conditions to be even more tenuous in the summers of 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Indeed, the hangover from the state's disastrous attempt at deregulating its electricity market in 1996 continues to bedevil efforts to provide the Golden State with adequate electricity supplies.

"Part of it is the battle going on between the governor and the Legislature," Conant said. "Part of it is the incompetence of the regulatory apparatus. Part of it is uncertainty over how to best" generate more electricity.

California's fumbling, analysts say, contrasts with progress made by East Coast policymakers, who managed to open their electricity markets and boost generation with few false steps. A widespread heat surge last week spurred record electricity use across the East, South and Southeast, but grid operators reported no significant problems.