February 20, 2001


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Reeta Sinha

Power to the People!

T hese words have taken on a new meaning lately. I wish someone would listen to us. Please send the people some power. It's cold here in California!

If we can't have that kind of power, please give us the kind that topples those in the electric companies who ran away with billions of our dollars. I mean the companies that now say they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

You'd have to be living in a cave if you haven't heard that we're facing an energy crisis in California. Yessiree, here in the heart of high-tech and high-rollers, we can't find enough juice to keep our lights on.

Until a week or so ago I wasn't too concerned. I was on the other coast when California made national news -- on the brink of power outages, we were. The next night I flew into San Francisco. The Bay Area was ablaze with lights. What power shortage? A day later, the sun was shining brightly at high noon when the first rolling blackout occurred.

Blackout, my foot. All you had to do was look out the window if you wanted light. And save for a few poor souls stuck in an elevator for a short while, life went on pretty much as normal.

And so it goes. Every day we're on the brink of disaster (read, the lights will go off for an hour or so) and generator sales are up. Americans, who have been buying scented candles for years, suddenly find that a fad has become a survival kit staple. Oh, and we're being urged to eat out more. Don't ask me to explain that last one. The way I see it, popping a frozen meal into a microwave has to use less energy than heating and lighting a huge restaurant while cooking hundreds of meals, but they're telling us to eat out. All in the name of energy conservation.

Now, if it weren't so cold in my apartment, I'd have trouble keeping a stiff upper lip. Sixteen hours a day the thermostat is set below 60 degrees (F). I do my laundry once every three weeks, although, this is not so much an energy conservation thing, as it is an economic necessity. When you pay by the laundry-load as I've had to for years, you learn to invest in lots of sheets, towels and er...unmentionables. And a huge dirty-laundry basket. I don't use a dishwasher and I love that now I have to let dishes pile up in the sink for days before washing. I've also started burning the candles friends have gifted me over the years. It's a trade-off; in order to use as much hot water as I want, I keep the electric lights off.

Yes, I'm doing my part during this power crisis, but I'm no longer happy about it. First, because no one else seems to be doing their part and second, I don't believe there is a 'crisis' in the first place.

Californians have always considered themselves to be special. I didn't realize just how special until I read about one reason why so much power comes from outside of the state. It's because Californians don't like to see power lines when they look up at the sky. Also, although there are those who don't agree, environmental policies have delayed the construction of new power plants during the past decade. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that without new power plants, California cannot keep up with its increasing demand for power.

I hope California is enjoying its very special energy shortage now.

Deregulation is also to blame, I read. I don't know too much about California's brand of deregulation. I wasn't here when the previous administration cleared the way for competition and falling electric bills. Some say the current crisis resulted because California only half-deregulated - no price controls but a cap on what consumers could be charged. Others say it was done too quickly. As a consumer I have yet to see where deregulation in any US industry has lowered prices for us. So, pardon me for not sympathizing with those who have only half-profited in the past few years, or for not trying too hard to understand what went wrong with deregulation California-style.

Part of the problem is that we the people can't really tell what is going on. Columnists here are urging us to pay attention to legislative gobbledygook. We didn't when they started talking deregulation, they say, and look where we are now. Okay, so now I'm trying to follow it all and what I come up with is:

  • No new power plants, lots of new people and energy-draining industries in California.
  • A lot of power generating plants that have been shut down this winter for 'repair.' -with less power generated, the existing power supply becomes valuable, so prices have skyrocketed.
  • The utility companies can't raise consumer rates so they say they're going bankrupt paying for power.
  • Everyone thinks California is getting what it deserves.

    It sounds simple enough. But then you hear about the utility companies who made billions of dollars in the early years of deregulation and shunted it all to their parent companies. Did they not plan for the future? Did they think the price of power would stay the same forever? It seems their plan all along was to 'take the money and run.' Now, in self-righteous tones, the utilities go on television to say consumer electricity bills must go up or they-the-companies will lose everything.

    We -- their customers -- won't be affected at all, of course, if our monthly bills double or triple.

    Then there are all these power plants that have suddenly been shut down for repair and for so long. Some say since demand is low in winter this is a good time to do it. Give me a break. A recent study showed that more power plants are off-line now than ever before. It seems these companies haven't heard of regularly scheduled maintenance. And who benefits from these plant shut-downs? Could it be the power-generators themselves?

    While everyone here loves blaming the current administration for California's power woes, I do hope some who have lived here longer than I have remember that deregulation was a Republican/Big-Business thing. It was under former governor Wilson that this mess started. He's been strangely quiet on the topic, from what I can tell. Probably too busy tallying up his gains from energy company stock.

    Maybe Californians do deserve to deal with this on their own. I've heard people say that other states and the federal government shouldn't have to intervene to keep California's lights on. I can see their point. But, I do have trouble with one thing. That would be some of the people President Bush has surrounded himself with in Washington. I believe these are the folks who advised Dubya to let California fend for itself; do not step in and set price controls, even temporarily. I have no doubt these former oil men know what they are talking about. After all, some of these top-level advisors have some pretty strong ties to Enron, the largest supplier of some forms of energy in the US.

    I wonder, who do you think gains the most from Bush's policy, from current high energy prices?

    It's all this doublespeak that has me steamed. PG&E says it's millions of dollars in the hole, but an audit finds that they may have a lot more money than they say they do. It's just in an account that they can't use to pay their bills. Do I care which account it's in? PG&E has the money, so pay up, please.

    Then there's Stanford University, urging its employees and students to conserve energy, while fountains (running on some sort of power, I assume) flow 8 to 10 hours a day and some outdoor lights stay on during the daytime. I was trying to figure out what exempted the university from conservation efforts until I read that it generates its own power. So much power that it can 'contribute' excess energy to the local utility, PG&E.

    Contribute? Uh, here's a better word: sell. Stanford sells its excess energy to PG&E, presumably at the current market rate. PG&E, in turn, sells power In other words, Stanford is profiting handsomely, I bet, during this energy shortage. I'm having a hard time convincing myself to conserve now at work. Why should I help Stanford sell more energy to the local utilities? My energy rates are going up by around 9%. I'll conserve at Stanford when my employer gives me a 9% raise.

    I'm sure people in India are having a good laugh at us. What a bunch of wimps. Ask them to turn a few lights off and watch them cry. True. I think it's ridiculous, the amount of energy that is wasted here, just if you consider lighting alone. But, judging from the billboards, store fronts and decorative lighting that stay on all night, many people aren't taking this crisis seriously. Bully for them. They are the same ones who aren't too worried about the dotcom bust either. The special California people who can afford to pay whatever their monthly bill shows.

    I've been in enough power-cuts in India to know how to manage without electricity for hours. Floor to ceiling windows help with lighting and I like taking the stairs. If the crisis continues in the summer, well, I like it warm and that's why they make hand-held fans, right? Heat this winter is another matter, of course. Building a fire or using a kerosene stove in my carpeted living room is not an option, so I just layer up and cover up. But, thanks to my own conservation efforts, I've seen my electricity bill drop by a few dollars this past month. Take that, PG&E!

    But, now that my fingers are about frozen, I'm passing the torch to Samir Kelekar who will finish this column. It seems California isn't the only state that's being bilked by politicians and businessmen. Dr. Kelekar comments on the state of power in Maharashtra in Part II.

    Reeta Sinha

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