As California’s energy crisis worsens, skyrocketing power bills and rolling blackouts are holding many of the state’s school districts—and their technology programs—hostage.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had no blackouts at all, and all our servers have battery backups,” said Kitty Sanchez-Pfeiffer, director of technology at San Marcos Unified School District (K-12, enr. 12,000). “We’ve also told our schools to shut their client machines down if there is enough warning—but, of course, if the blackouts come without warning, the client machines will just go down with the power.”

Jamie Morse, director of technology for the Cambrian School District (K-12, enr. 3,000) in West San Jose, agreed on the importance of power backups for the district’s all-important servers.

“Thankfully, all our servers have uninterruptible power supplies, or UPSs, so they will shut down gracefully if a power outage occurs, rather than crash,” he said.

Morse said his district has yet to experience a blackout, “but basically, we are at the mercy of the power company.”

Most observers consider the Golden State’s current energy crisis to be a direct result of attempts to deregulate the industry over the past few years. A rate freeze, part of California’s 1996 deregulation law, was established at what was then a generous level to assure utilities a steady stream of revenue as they sold off power plants and made the transition to deregulation. But last year, the price of wholesale electricity skyrocketed.

Because of the rate freeze, the state’s public utilities—which usually buy power for roughly 30 cents a kilowatt-hour—could only charge customers about a fifth of that amount, leaving many utilities serving California operating at a loss.

Electric companies have been selling their power to other states with less severe regulations, resulting in a lack of affordable power throughout the state. And that lack of power is affecting schools’ ability to operate.

According to Morse, “Theoretically, they can’t shut down the power to schools. In fact, if you live within the same power grid as a school, your power will stay up, also.”

But in reality, that may not be true for every school, said Tony Hesch, field consultant for the California Department of Education.

Hesch identified three possible scenarios that could result from the energy crisis.

“First, there are the rolling one-hour blackouts,” he said. “They are applied where the energy grid is short on power, and they may not hit every community. When they hit, most schools continue to operate, but the schools might go into a ‘study mode’ where they discuss electricity, power outages, and the current problems.”

Second, explained Hesch, is the possibility of more severe blackouts.

“In theory, if the energy isn’t shut done periodically with the rolling blackouts, a large portion of the state could go out,” he said. “In a school environment, we have to prepare for the worst, like what happens when an entire plant goes down.”

Finally, Hesch cited problems with some California districts that signed up to buy power at discounted rates years ago, when deregulation first started.

“The really low rates were what we call ‘interruptible contracts,'” he said. “What that means is that the company will provide you with power, but when power is short—like it is right now—you’re expected to turn your power off.”

To make matters worse, nervous school administrators normally have no way of knowing when a blackout will hit their school.

“We don’t announce it in advance for security reasons,” Ron Low, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), told the Associated Press (AP). “We don’t want burglars to know where the power’s going to be off and where security alarms are going to be down.”

Security concerns aside, the state’s two largest utilities say there often isn’t enough time to issue such warnings.

When the California Independent System Operator (ISO) decides temporary blackouts are necessary, it notifies utility companies to reduce electricity consumption by a certain number of megawatts. Each utility decides where the outages will occur.

PG&E and Southern California Edison say that when the keeper of the state power grid calls, they usually have less than half an hour to begin shutting customers down.

“Supply and demand is such a dynamic situation that we are often waiting until the last minute possible to make that decision, hoping that some additional supply will become available or conservation measures might kick in at the last minute,” ISO spokeswoman Lori O’Donley told AP.

But that leaves schools with hard decisions about how to teach.

“Imagine holding a computer class when you know that a rolling blackout might take down the power at any time,” said Hesch. “It’s hard to decide whether to go ahead and power up, and it’s also hard to find alternative curriculum.”

A ‘real hardship’

The threat of losing power isn’t the only peril California schools. With prices escalating, some schools have had to reassess the way they use their increasingly precious power supply—including the possibility of limiting computer use.

Some schools have seen their rates go up to as much as $9 per kilowatt-hour, Hesch said.

“They were spending more money on electricity than was in their entire general fund,” he added. “At least four schools that I know of have had to close for a prolonged period of time. They are all back up now, but that could happen again.”

San Bernadino Unified School District (K-12, enr. 52,185) is one district that may get hit very hard this year by increased utility bills, said Gene Fortajada, the district’s accounting services director.

“The energy crisis is definitely going to affect the district,” he said. “We have not assessed the total impact yet, but from what we’ve gathered, we’ll probably see a 10 [percent] to 17 percent increase in our utility bills.”

According to Fortajada, San Bernadino’s electricity budget is $4.5 million for 2001.

“We try and budget as close as possible to what we spent last year,” he explained. “But after the increase, electricity could end up costing almost $450,000 more than we budgeted for, and that’s assuming the increase is only 10 percent.”

California Gov. Gray Davis used his Dec. 8 State of the State address to take his toughest stance yet on California’s electricity crunch, threatening to take over power plants to avoid blackouts and utility bankruptcies. But many school officials think the situation will only get worse before it improves.

“In my opinion, we are looking at probably another 15 [percent] to 20 percent increase [in power bills] before this gets better,” said Morse.

Morse said his district is taking several steps to limit its power consumption—but, so far, none of these have involved limiting computer use.

“We just make sure our maintenance crews are ensuring that the timers on the heating [controls] are working properly. They are supposed to turn off automatically at night, but you have to check up on that,” he said. “We’ve also told teachers and janitors to ensure that everything is turned off [when not in use], including lights, PCs, and classroom equipment.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer agreed: “We are trying to conserve in other areas. It’s difficult to conserve energy when it comes to technology. But in my office, for instance, I have three fluorescent lights and we took out one, so it’s a little darker, but more energy efficient.”

Most of the time, Sanchez-Pfeiffer explained, districts are unwilling to change their patterns where students are concerned.

“Right now, everything remains as we normally function,” she said. “We really try to protect our hardware, internet access, and the curriculum we deliver electronically.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer said the city of San Marcos, the school district, and California State University at San Marcos are looking into other power sources, and district officials have notified school sites to shut down computers not being used.

“The problem is that we’ve found most of the computers in our district are being used,” she said—a situation that usually would be enviable.

Some observers wonder if the state’s energy crunch will force school districts to cut their technology budgets if it continues much longer.

“I think cutting technology would be a last-ditch effort,” said Hesch. “In this day and age, I can’t even imagine [cutting technology], but the energy problems are just so crazy, there’s no telling what will happen.”

According to Morse, “The money for the increased power bills will come out of our general fund. Thankfully, at Cambrian … we have money that we can move around. But at a larger district, I’d say one of the first things they might cut would be any new technology purchases.”

“We are stressing that schools be prepared,” said Hesch. “The districts are doing a good job and rising to the challenge, but if this goes on for months, it will be a real hardship.”

Links:

San Marcos Unified School District
http://www.smusd.k12.ca.us

Cambrian School District
http://www.cambrian.k12.ca.us

San Bernadino City Unified School
http://www.sbcusd.k12.ca.us

California Department of Education Energy Challenge
http://www.cde.ca.gov/facilities/energyefficiency