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By Now, Energy Crisis Is All Too Familiar

On Feb. 24, 1948, a Tuesday, this newspaper carried a front page photograph of a young family enduring a power blackout in their East Los Angeles apartment. The father heated a baby bottle with the flame of a candle, while the mother changed their infant’s diaper in the dim, flickering light. “Like Pioneer Days,” suggested the photo caption.

Related articles reported public protests in Los Angeles over electricity outages, a rush to complete a new generating plant in Redondo Beach, and a decision by state officials to impose what the newspaper called “dimouts” across Northern and Central California.

Dimouts, of course, are now referred to as rolling blackouts, and doesn’t the earlier coinage more deftly capture the daffiness inherent in the inability of the State Where the Future Begins to keep its power grid up and running? Semantical issues aside, though, a larger point remains: There is nothing altogether novel about California’s present predicament.

A similar power shortage played out in 1948--with “dimouts,” conservation campaigns, suggestions of power company hanky-panky, the works. The 1948 crisis, seen as an echo of a 1924 shortage, would become the subject of an academic study written in 1973--at the onset of another energy crisis, this one nationwide.

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Stuart A. Ross--now an administrator at Cal State Fullerton--wrote the 52-page monograph, “An Energy Crisis from the Past,” for the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. Looking back across a quarter century, Ross concluded that the response of California in 1948 had been “eerily familiar” to what was unfolding in 1973:

“The magazine articles, the political stratagems, and the [meeting] minutes all seem indistinguishable in structure and depth from their modern counterparts.”

Jump forward another quarter century, to yet another energy crisis, and the familiarity quotient fairly leaps off the charts. Yes, there were differences--no half-baked deregulation schemes, no Texans. Still, consider the parallels: Despite rapid population growth, power plant construction in California had become sidetracked in the 1940s by the war effort; in the 1990s, it was industry uncertainty about coming deregulation that slowed plant construction.

Converging trend lines were missed. In 1948, as now, a lack of rainfall undercut hydroelectric supplies crucial to Northern and Central California. Until it was too late, PG&E; kept insisting it had plenty of supply--assurances that skeptics believed were part of a utility campaign to keep less expensive federal power from invading its domain.

When the crisis hit, it seemed to many Californians an almost overnight collapse. Then, as now, there were doubters. Ross found in PUC files a handwritten note from “An Average Orchard Farmer.” The anonymous agrarian was irked that San Joaquin Valley farmers were under orders to reduce pumping for irrigation, and he thundered:

“If the power shortage is so acute as to make it necessary to ruin many of the farmers in this valley, then why, may I ask, are lodges, clubs, athletic events, yes, and even the power club of the PG&E;, which held their smoker last week from 5 p.m. till after midnight in a very large and well-lit hall, allowed to take place?”

The official response followed what by now are predictable lines. Residents were cajoled to cut usage voluntarily by 10% or more, a call that apparently was answered. Utilities were authorized to cut off electricity to heavy users. Initially, this was done with rolling blackouts.

“A later modification,” Ross noted, foreshadowing an idea that has begun to gain some traction now in Sacramento, “was to schedule rotations of cutoffs. . . . so that a plant might be scheduled to be shut down, say, every Friday.”

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In what Ross described as mostly symbolism, “show windows in stores were ordered blacked out; ballparks, theaters, new-car lots, and public monuments were put under tight restrictions.” The state was placed on daylight savings time. Power was purchased from the L.A. Department of Water and Power; then, as now, it had juice to spare. Transmission line inadequacies, however, hindered California’s attempts to move electricity from south to north--shades of the now-infamous Path 15.

In the end, after a few tough months, the state caught a break. Late, heavy spring rains unexpectedly replenished hydroelectric supplies. Still, for the next year or so, the shortage fostered lingering skittishness and sober reflection on California’s reliance on electricity. Ross concluded that, in a quarter century, the situation had not improved much. Yes, in 1973, the numbers were greater--more people, more electronic devices, more supply--but a fundamental dynamic remained.

“Unfortunately,” he observed, “having more electricity to use has not made us feel we have more electricity to spare. . . . Convenience has become necessity; our expectations and our commitments have gone up. The problem is that simple, and that difficult.”

Ross gave the final word in his report to one Robert O’Brien, who served as state “power czar” in the 1948 crisis. Looking back on it all, O’Brien left the researcher with this thought: “Progress is the art of making the same mistake only once every generation.”

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Now, as then, that seems to nail it.


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