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Wind Power Attracts New Customers

September 27, 1998

TEHACHAPI, Calif. (AP) _ The three-bladed propellers play an eerie wind waltz _ a steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh _ as the persistent breeze blows.

The sleek, angular towers, reaching up to 140 feet, stand like sentries guarding the grassy hillsides that lead to California’s high desert.

``To me, they look like giant toy pinwheels flickering in the afternoon sun,″ said Geraldine Veatch, who lives just west of Tehachapi Pass where more than 4,900 wind turbines spin out enough energy annually to power 250,000 homes.

``Some say they’re an eyesore. But I’d rather have wind turbines than nuclear power plants.″

California is the birthplace of wind power in the United States. It’s also the first state to let consumers choose the source of the electricity they use. Now the rest of the country is watching to see how wind farms and other pollution-free, or ``renewable,″ energy producers fare in a competitive marketplace.

Power sources considered renewable include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass (electricity produced by burning garbage) and small hydroelectric plants (which don’t significantly impact wildlife and water).

Prior to March 31, a handful of utilities held a monopoly on the state’s $20 billion power industry. The system made sense, given the high cost of producing and transmitting electricity and the need for reliable electricity in this energy-dependent age.

But California’s deregulation legislation, passed in 1997, opened the market in the same way the airlines and long-distance phone industries were restructured.

``Deregulation actually doesn’t have anything to do with the flow of electricity, it has to do with flow of money,″ said Rich Ferguson, spokesman with the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

``You used to have to give all your money to the monopoly utility. Now you can chose an independent supplier.″

Whether consumers will use their buying power to demand lower prices or whether they’ll be willing to actually pay more for nonpolluting choices of electricity generation are unanswered questions.

About 69,000 residential customers have switched their power providers from utilities to independent suppliers since the program started late last year, according to California Energy Commission spokeswoman Claudia Chandler.

But the utility industry is not yet able to determine how many of those customers chose renewable power sources, Ms. Chandler said.

Ferguson said the majority were likely green switches.

``It’s the biggest factor in the competitive market,″ he said. ``Prices aren’t a strong marketing factor at this point.″

John Shahabian, owner of The Coffee Works in Sacramento, said he has switched his small business to renewable energy and is planning to change over at home as well.

``I’m doing it because I’m so opposed to nuclear power,″ he said. ``It’s such a disaster for the planet. We have to think not just about the quantity but also the quality of the energy we use and how it affects the air and the earth.″

Several high-profile companies also have gone green for all its rewards, which include being a strong image marketing tool.

Patagonia, Inc., a Ventura-based outdoor clothing company, announced recently that it has committed to using 100 percent wind energy to power its 14 California facilities.

``We decided, as a company, to participate in eliminating or reducing the dirty power that’s on the grid by replacing it with clean power,″ said Patagonia spokeswoman Lu Setnicka.

But the company won’t be going off the grid and running power lines direct to the wind turbines. Instead, it has contracted to buy its electricity from Enron Energy Services. Enron is building a 16-megawatt wind farm near Palm Springs to accommodate the contract.

``We think of the grid as a pool full of dirty water,″ Ms. Setnicka said. ``As more and more power users add clean energy to the pool by buying renewable energy, the water will slowly clear. It’s the replacement principle.″

Ms. Setnicka said Patagonia will pay a premium for the power but declined to say how much.

``We’re thinking in broader terms about what cost means,″ she said. ``What are the costs of using non-renewables to our health, or the earth?″

Toyota Motor Sales also committed to using a mix of renewables _ including wind, solar and geothermal _ to power its Torrance and Irvine headquarters. The division also is working on switching over to renewable energy at its Long Beach docking facility and an auto parts supply facility.

Jim Cooke, Toyota’s national manager of real estate and energy affairs, said choosing clean electricity will cost the company an extra $1 million. The positive response justifies the higher price, he said.

Among municipal customers, Santa Monica recently became the first city in the state to commit to green power. Its city council voted to ``pursue at the earliest possible date″ the purchase of green power for city hall and other city-owned buildings.

California’s ``green power marketing″ programs are not to be confused with ``green pricing″ offered by various utilities across the country, said Randall Swisher, executive director of the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association.

``Green power marketing″ is a way of distinguishing a product in a competitive market, he said.

``Green pricing″ is when customers in a non-deregulated marketplace volunteer to pay a premium for their electricity to a monopoly utility. The utility then invests that money in renewable power.

Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas are a few of the states where monopoly utilities are offering ``green pricing″ programs.

In California, customers can simply call an independent power source and choose from a variety of packages.

For instance, for an extra $7.45 to $16.90 a month, customers can chose a package from Southern California Edison’s Earthsource 50 or 100 programs, offering power that is either 50 percent or 100 percent from renewable sources.

Billing arrangements vary, but under many agreements customers will continue to receive one electric bill, although they’ll be itemized to show how much they’re paying for their energy and how much for transmission.

In some cases, customers will receive two bills, one from the utility for transmission and another for electricity generation.

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