United States

United States

Blackouts highlight system dangers

A massive power cut stranded over four million customers in nine western states and Mexico in August, the second on the west coast within six weeks, provoking wide ranging evaluations of system reliability on the Western grid and forcing cuts in shipments of power to California by 25% during a record breaking heat wave. Many feared that a final decision about restructuring California's electric utility industry would be put off once again until next year. Democratic Assembly member Tom Hayden is using the cut as an opportunity to lobby for reliable, renewable in-state sources of electrical power, claiming special interests, especially foreign multinationals were indirectly responsible for the blackout

The effort to open up the largest US electricity market to competition endured a series of bizarre twists and turns last month, not the least of which was a massive power outage that stranded over four million customers in nine western states and Mexico on August 11. The blackout, which has been linked to transmission lines sagging into trees in the service territory of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), was the second major power cut on the west coast within a six week period.

Though the trauma has promoted wide ranging evaluations of system reliability on the Western grid, and forced BPA to cut its shipments of power to California by 25% during a record breaking heat wave, the most immediate affect was the fear that a final decision about restructuring California's electric utility industry would be put off once again until next year (see main story).

Meantime Democratic Assembly member Tom Hayden is using the power outage as an opportunity to call for increased spending on energy efficiency and renewable technologies. "California needs to step up its efforts at reliable, secure, renewable in-state sources of electrical power. Instead we are moving towards a dangerous dependency on the very system which just failed massively," he says.

Danger of vested interests

Pointing a finger at those he claims were indirectly responsible for the blackout, he adds: "The special interests pushing California toward this future of energy risk are, first, foreign multinationals like Korean and Japanese cement and steel plants grouped in the California Large Energy Consumers Group (CLECA), and of course the oil companies who wish to continue their domination over renewables."

In a letter to Senator Steve Peace, Hayden notes that Republican Assembly member Jim Brulte, author of the primary deregulation legislation, promised members of the California Manufacturers Association that the California Legislature would "roll over renewables" and "roll over enviros." These comments were made within the context of Brulte promising to deliver rate cuts to large industry and protect utility stranded investments. Programmes in jeopardy, said Brulte in his speech, were those designed to promote renewable energy.

According to records available at the Secretary of State's office, Brulte has received well over $100,000 from industrial special interests pushing deregulation, including gifts from six different members of CLECA.

Hayden is calling for a policy whereby state agencies purchase 50% of their electricity through a combination of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies by the year 2000. He also calls for the development of tax credits for producers and consumers of renewable power.

In his plea for action on renewables, Hayden quotes from a 1978 report by California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that claimed "it does appear feasible for a complex, post-industrial society such as California to operate on renewable, largely distributed [decentralised] energy systems, even assuming that California population doubles and economic activity triples in 2025 compared to 1975 figures." He laments the fact that the advice offered in the report some 20 years ago was not heeded.

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