Editorial: Walking state’s hot tight-wire

On the whole, most of the people who live or work in the areas where this newspaper is circulated came out reasonably well during the triple-digit heat wave that sweltered California during the past two weeks. Unlike some 823,000 of our neighbors in the East Bay and South Bay, we did not suffer extended large-scale blackouts.

As the summer’s coastal fog inches its way eastward again, post-mortems are quickly emerging about the death toll, damages and costs of the state’s most severe heat wave since 1952. For the moment, California’s energy supply appears to be sufficient to avoid the widespread rolling power outages caused in 2001 by market manipulation by out-of-state suppliers.

But this does not mean Californians can simply relax and ignore the need to increase the state’s availability of electricity. Public and private energy managers readily admit that without the 36 new power generating plants added since the 2001 debacle, this July’s blackouts could have been much, much worse.

Right now, two new power plants are under construction, 10 more have been approved and another 11 are in the licensing pipeline. Even so, the California Independent System Operator, which routes day-to-day output of the statewide power grid, is projecting that the increase might still be approximately 900,000 megawatts short of meeting peak demand in 2008 and 2009.

Aside from the 11-million-person growth in population expected for California by 2030 — half of it in the steamy Central Valley, where powerful air conditioning is considered a necessity of life — steadily increasing energy demand is coming from the greater variety of electrical gadgets in average households today. A megawatt of electricity used to be enough to power 1,000 homes. Now that estimate is down to 750 homes because of more computers, remote-control devices, video game consoles and theater-screen televisions in use.

Another lesson from the July 2006 outages is that their most common cause was overheating of transformer boxes due to higher electricity usage during the heat wave. PG&E is bringing in 800 new transformers to replace those that failed in the Bay Area during July. The utility is now analyzing the latest transformer failure patterns to determine the most cost-effective way to upgrade these components.

Ecology boosters as well as property owners resistant to power plants being built anywhere near them should be pleased that expansion of solar electricity is on the way, both from Gov. Schwarzenegger’s $3 billion incentive program and a new PG&E-supported legislative push to quintuple the availability of California’s solar power.

In the short term, it is up to the Schwarzenegger administration to keep a close eye on any gaps between electricity supply and demand, and be ready to act on energy shortfalls a lot more quickly than ex-governor Gray Davis ever did in 2001.

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