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[whitespace] Schools, city cope with energy costs

Saratoga--The threat of an energy rate hike for consumers in the state became real on Jan. 4, and school and city officials in Saratoga started thinking seriously about how to deal with the problem.

The Saratoga Union School District has formulated a general plan to respond to the temporary increase in energy rates that California's Public Utilities Commission voted to enact on Jan. 4, as well as future, long-term increases. The Los Gatos-Saratoga High School District will go so far as to hire an energy consultant to help face the crisis of higher costs. But the city of Saratoga, which pays its utility bills directly to the Association of Bay Area Governments, is in somewhat of a different place than the schools.

The city is part of ABAG's "power pool," which started at the beginning of energy deregulation some five years ago. Back then, the city gave ABAG a historic estimate of power needs and ABAG bought long-term contracts at lower "pre-crisis" costs with energy providers at fixed rates, according to City Manager Dave Anderson. Now, being part of the power pool really matters, Anderson said, since all of the city's energy needs--such as street lights--are covered by it.

"The power pool has really saved its member cities a tremendous amount," Anderson said. "In this case, deregulation seems to be working."

Anderson said Saratoga's contract is for 18 months. "So hopefully it'll tide us over the current crisis," he said.

Still, the city is doing its best to conserve energy, Anderson said. He said he has already sent a memo to city staff members reminding them to minimize energy consumption at work. Also, the holiday lighting in the Village--the Christmas tree and the white lights on the trees lining Big Basin Way--have been set on timers and they come on at 7 p.m. to midnight only.

The PUC approved the 90-day, 7 percent to 15 percent rate increase for customers of the state's utilities, so that the utilities and state officials will have some breathing room to devise a long-term solution to high wholesale costs of energy. The PUC is also now studying a proposal by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that serves Northern California, to issue bonds that utility customers would have to pay back over time, a proposal that could mean even higher energy rates for consumers.

According to the superintendent of the high school district, Cynthia Ranii, the district is exploring ways to save energy in the schools and thus reduce energy use by about 5 to 7 percent.

Last fiscal year, the high school district spent $xxx,xxx on its PG&E bill, and this year Geoffrey E. Teall, the district's assistant superintendent for administrative services, said he is planning for the bill to be higher. He hopes, however, that by next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2001, the district will have put some coping strategies in place.

"I'm going to be satisfied if we're able to hold the costs to no more than 5 percent more then we're paying this year," Teall said.

Teall and the district's operations coordinator, Brian Moran, met Jan. 10, to work on the beginnings of the district's "energy management program," in response to the anticipated costs.

The program entails two main components, Teall said, the first is an evaluation of the physical changes the district can make to reduce energy use. An example would be timers on light switches, heating systems and air-conditioning units, Teall said. Another example would be to phase out inefficient physical components, such as certain lights, and replace them with energy conserving components.

Second, the district would find ways to be more "conservation-minded" in the use of electricity and natural gas, Teall said. The district plans to send out requests for proposals to energy consultants, to work under Moran's direction, to tailor an energy management program to the district's needs. Teall said the district would need to start an awareness campaign, which it is just laying the groundwork for now.

"The other step is for us to pull together a committee of interested members of our school community to develop ways in which we can be more energy conserving," Teall said, adding that representatives from the schools, as well as the district office, would make up the committee.

At the SUSD, conservation efforts have started, according to chief business official for the district Ellen Tipton. The elementary school district's utility bill last fiscal year was approximately $150,000, and she estimates an additional $15,000 to be tacked on this year's with the rate increase.

Luckily, two of the district's four schools, Saratoga School and Redwood Middle School, have recently been renovated with more energy-efficient features, such as double-paned windows--that keep the heat in and the cold out--and an energy management system that controls the heat and air conditioning at all times from an outside location, Tipton said.

The district has told staff members, principals and teachers to be more energy conscious in general, and has asked specifically that staff and teachers shut off computers at night and shut off lights when classrooms are not in use during the day, according to Tipton.

While the district expects to pay more for energy this year, Tipton said the extra money could be taken out of other budget items, such as the maintenance budget emergency fund, since she said the rate hike would qualify as an emergency.

"We'll have to conserve somewhere else so we can have enough money to pay for the utilities," Tipton said. "And next year we'll just have to include the increase in our budget process."

The reason for the state's energy crisis is that the utilities that serve the state say they are on the verge of bankruptcy, since power suppliers have been charging the utilities more than the utilities are allowed to charge their customers under a 1996 deregulation law that froze rates. In an effort to help the utilities, the PUC approved the consumer rate increase for the next three months.
Kara Chalmers

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