SACRAMENTO, California - As California struggles with an unprecedented energy crisis, windmill owner Fred Noble is one man you could expect to profit from the shortage.
Nobel's windmills generate electricity from the hot winds that howl through the narrow San Gregorio Pass near the deserts of Palm Springs, in southern California.
The area is considered one of the best sites for wind power in the world because the pass is just above sea level and free from ice and snow.
"When the wind is blasting you can't stand and talk," he says, commenting on winds that can blow up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) per hour.
But there is little demand today for electricity generated by the 3,000 windmills owned by Nobel's Wintec Energy and other companies in the pass.
California was home to the lion's share of US renewable power supplies from the 1980s to mid-1990s -- but in 1996 energy prices were deregulated, undercutting wind, solar and other green power.
And when the current statewide electricity crisis broke, officials granted speedy approval to several old-fashioned fossil fuel projects, dealing renewables an even more serious blow.
Today only 10 percent of California's juice comes from non-fossil power.
"Nearly 3,000 megawatts of renewable power sources went off line and energy efficiency was cut by 50 percent," said Alan Nogee of the Union for Concerned Scientists. One megawatt can power 750 homes or more.
"That clean affordable power would been very helpful this last year to meet the state's energy needs and control prices," Nogee said.
The state Department of Water Resources made things worse, critics charge.
The DWR has been buying billions of dollars of energy on behalf of California's beleaguered private utilities. But of 9,800 megawatts locked up power deals until 2010, only 120 -- or 1.2 percent -- come from wind, geothermal and biomass energy.
Clean air advocate John White lamented that 2001 "is the year that 'renewable' got caught up in a drive-by shooting."
White blames "indifference, ignorance and secrecy" caused by the state government's "war-time mentality."
Governor Gray Davis and DWR negotiated 43 billion dollars in power deals behind closed doors, only recently revealed -- and after a several news agencies and state assembly Republicans successfully sued to bring the deals out.
Because so much power is locked up long-term, the green energy market has nearly dried up and renewable suppliers are in worst shape today than when markets were first deregulated.
DWR spokesman Ray Hart defended the contracts, claiming the goal was to sign up electricity immediately.
However, 70 percent of the contracted energy is for supplies from plants to be built over the next few years -- all fueled by unregulated natural gas.
Hart claimed the door was open to renewables, saying 1,200 megawatts from wind, biomass, geothermal and landfill gas projects was in the works.
But many are skeptical.
"We were turned down flat by DWR," said Cal Energy's John Weisgall. His company offered 60 megawatts of geothermal power immediately and more later, but the state was not interested.
Another supplier said dealing with DWR "is like pouring molasses uphill on a winter day." Brian O'Sullivan of Coram Energy Group said the department rejected his offer of 39 megawatts of wind power at below average contract prices.
Clean power and consumer advocates want legislation requiring 20 percent of California's energy to come from renewable sources within a decade.
Unless things change, they warn, California will lose its prominence in renewable energy.
Copyright © 2001 AFP