Reuters, The New York Times, AP, ABC News – Rolling power blackouts have hit California, in what may be a warning for the rest of the country. Families have been asked to turn off their Christmas lights, businesses have had to shut down. Soon people may find themselves sitting in the dark at home. On some days, as much as one third of the electricity needed during the peak hours of 4 to 7 p.m. has not been available. Utility executives warn that the states? electrical system is on the verge of collapse. “People are in a heap of trouble,” said S. David Freeman, of the LA Department of Water and Power. “This shouldn?t happen this time of year.” Hours before Governor Gray Davis was set to turn on the lights for the states? official Christmas tree, the local utility company was still trying to find the 1,000 megawatts of electricity it was short of that day. Governor Davis flipped on the lights, gave a short speech, then flipped them off again.

New York used to be the place that trend-spotters kept paid attention to, because events happened there first, then spread to the rest of the country. In the past few decades, however, trend-setting has moved to California. This is why we need to ask ourselves why this is happening now, when California is actually losing population to other states and it is not in the midst of a heat wave. Is this a dire prediction about the future for the rest of the country?

One reason this is happening is that an unusually large number of power generators have been shut down for maintenance or because the don?t meet air quality standards. Also, California used to be the fastest growing state on the West Coast, but now Washington and Oregon are gaining in population and demanding more of the power resources in the area.

To make matters worse, wholesale natural gas prices are ten times higher than they were last year, meaning that despite the blackouts, customers are in for a shock when they get their utility bills.

Loretta Lynch, president of the Public Utilities Commission, insists that there is no emergency. She made this statement seated in a dark San Francisco office, lit only by a glowing computer screen. “We have the power,” she said, but she agreed that one quarter of the state?s generators are not up and running. “People want a magic pill, and they aren?t going to get it,” she added.

California voted to deregulate its electrical industry four years ago, believing this would lower utility prices. But private utility companies have little incentive to keep a high level of reserves, so they are vulnerable when utility needs soar or when gas prices are inflated. Congress has backed big business over government control during the last 8 years, and is certain to do so in the future, under a Republican administration, so we may see this problem spread to other states, especially since global warming will probably bring us colder winters and hotter summers.

Sources: Reuters, The New York Times, AP, ABC News

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