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California Focus: Plug almost pulled on regional grid

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For months, the concept of a Western regional electricity grid advanced steadily through the Legislature, pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and a phalanx of financial and utility giants including investor Warren Buffett and the AES electric generating firm, operator of 127 power plants.

The regional grid was to span the full Pacific Coast, plus interior states like Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada. California would cede control of its own electric transmission system to a new board named at least in part by utilities and other generating companies.

The fox would run the henhouse, with California consumers likely to be prime victims again, as they were the last time this state gave control of its power supply to outsiders – the 1998 deregulation plan that led to rolling brownouts for almost a year during the energy crunch of 2000 and 2001.

But Brown pushed hard for it, determined to create as many solar thermal power plants as possible. California already has several of these, the most visible at Ivanpah, just across the state line from Nevada a few miles west of the I-15 freeway south of Las Vegas.

This plan is not dead yet. It could put California power customers at the mercy of out-of-state companies analogous to the disgraced and now-defunct Houston-based Enron Corp.

The grid change was merely delayed, not killed, in the just-ended legislative session, even though it deserved to die. “We will continue this important discussion next year,” said Democratic state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins as she at the last moment denied the bill, known as AB813, a vote by the full Senate after it passed through several committees.

This pernicious plan was pushed by some companies that actually were peripheral players in the energy crunch which eventually sent executives of Enron and several other big power companies to prison. It probably was shelved because no one knew just how much it would cost Californians. Among those behind it were Duke Energy and Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Companies and their subsidiary PacificCorp., the largest electric utility in the Pacific Northwest. Both were players during deregulation and the disaster that followed.

Also behind it were green organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which want renewable energy expanded quickly no matter what it costs consumers. They allied with owners of huge solar thermal plants like BrightSource Energy and SunPower Corp.

It was a tough alliance to beat in lobbyist-infested Sacramento. But the regional grid appeared to lose steam at almost the last possible moment before the latest two-year legislative session ended at midnight Aug. 31. That was when consumer lawyer Mike Aguirre, formerly the elected city attorney of San Diego, released scores of Brown administration emails acquired via the state’s public records law. They showed Brown’s administration and the state Public Utilities Commission withheld a fiscal impact report on the regional grid.

Legislators normally demand such a report before passing far-reaching laws, but went along without it for months until Atkins finally acted. A fiscal report was supposed to come at midsummer, but on the day it was due, an administration representative informed the Senate Appropriations Committee there would be no report.

Aguirre described the emails as leaving “a trail to the governor and the PUC president (Michael Picker, a former Brown aide).”

Meanwhile, backers of the regional grid insisted it would allow California solar plants to sell renewable energy cheaply into other states, undermining demand for power generated with fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.

This would benefit the companies backing the plan and be greener, but probably would raise prices for Californians. No one explained why excess energy generated in California sunshine can’t be saved in large batteries for later use.

The bottom line: The alertness of one lawyer and Atkins’ apparent response to it quite possibly saved Californians from a repeat of the energy crunch, where California-produced power was sent out of state, some of it getting sold back here at hugely-inflated prices. But this may only be a respite, so consumer advocates must remain ready to resist the idea again and again until it finally dies.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.