Taking off the gloves in the Golden State

Pam Boschee, Managing Editor

As I’m writing this, Dennis Tito returned to Earth, proclaiming, “It was paradise. I just came back from paradise.”

He’s the multimillionaire who blasted off from the Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to tag along with two cosmonauts delivering an escape capsule to the International Space Station-after paying $20 million for the privilege to do so.

His adventure generated notoriety and worldwide publicity. NASA, however, remains adamant that he had no business being there since he’s not an astronaut. But the Russians gave him (and his $20 million) a warm welcome.

He has been touted as the first space tourist. But I think there’s more to this story. Tito is from California, and I suspect he needed a vacation. He had probably tired of hearing about the energy crisis and thought an eight-day jaunt up, up and away from it all would be a great idea. And, let’s face it-he could afford to escape and experience the ultimate in distributed generation. Self-contained power, no rolling blackouts, no energy policy discussions.

During his sabbatical, Tito missed some interesting developments. For example, Reliant Energy senior vice president, John Stout, introduced the term “negawatts” during his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. He proposed a negawatts program to help reduce demand by allowing retail customers willing to forego electricity to bid the power into the western market. Load customers would bid a specific price per kWh for interrupting and the amount of interruptible load in MW. The individual bids would then be aggregated into a bid stack of available emergency resources to be made available in the western interconnection. He estimated the negawatts program could free up to 5,000 MW.

Those 5,000 MW would provide coverage for the 3,000 to 4,000 MW daily shortage Gov. Gray Davis is anticipating if California doesn’t decrease its demand by 10 percent compared to last summer.

“We will have to set the record in the Guinness Book of [World] Records for conservation,” said Davis in a recent keynote address.

One drop in the bucket toward the 4,000 MW shortfall might come from swimming pools, if Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) customers are willing to cooperate. According to the Los Angeles Times, PG&E said it will pay residential swimming pool owners in Northern and Central California $20 each to operate swimming pool pumps between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. rather than during the day when electricity supplies are expected to be short. They estimate there are 134,000 in-ground swimming pools in their 70,000-square-mile territory. PG&E expects the program will reduce peak demand by 15 MW-enough to serve more than 11,000 homes.

In contrast to PG&E’s kinder and gentler approach to facilitating some changes in the market, others are getting ready to take off the gloves.

California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza introduced a bill that seeks to imprison anyone convicted of gas and electricity price gouging in the energy markets. They’re also talking about a $1 million bounty for information leading to the conviction of anyone caught manipulating power and natural gas prices in the state and contributing to a boost in California energy bills. A whistleblower provision will grant civil and criminal immunity to anyone that provides information to the state. (Sounds like “America’s Most Wanted” may soon have a special “electricity fugitives” segment.)

The bill would fine corporations found to have manipulated the market up to 10 percent of their gross corporate assets and would require full restitution to the affected party.

Giving back money is just what Williams agreed to in settlement of the only enforcement action (so far) resulting from FERC’s investigation into alleged overcharging in California. Williams will refund $8 million, and the settlement exonerates them from having to admit any wrongdoing. Another $124.5 million in alleged overcharges by other suppliers remain under FERC scrutiny.

Tito enjoyed 16 orbits per day far above the problems of California. But now he’s back on terra firma, and eventually his journey will take him back to his home-in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (which is, by the way, Tito’s former occupation) to conclude that such a wondrous respite brings welcome serenity and perhaps, even if brief, a sense that all is right with the world.

I’ll bet Tito already booked his next blastoff to paradise.

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