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Contracts save electricity costs, but college natural gas bills soar By JENNIFER KERR Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO (AP) -- California's energy crisis could cause higher dormitory bills, fewer night and weekend classes and sweltering summer classrooms at the state's public colleges, lawmakers learned Tuesday.
Officials from the state's three college and university systems urged the Legislature to provide them with extra money in the 2001-2002 state budget to keep their higher energy prices, particularly for natural gas, from hurting education.
"It's impacting students, it's impacting learning, it's impacting budgets and it's impacting planning," said Ray Giles of the Community College League.
The University of California paid $26 million for natural gas last year and is expecting to pay at least $60 million this year, said Mike Bocchicchio, UC assistant vice president for facilities.
UC has not decided whether to raise dormitory rates to reflect the higher cost of heating and cooling dorm rooms, he said. The UC dormitory system is designed to be self-supporting, he added.
"I don't think it's fair to say we're just going to pass the costs along to the dorm residents," said Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, chair of the committee.
California State University's natural gas prices are expected to jump from $8.7 million last year to $27.6 million this year, said Assistant Vice Chancellor Patrick Drohan.
Fred Harris of the community colleges' chancellor's office, chancellor's office estimated community colleges' costs for electricity and natural gas will increase from $68 million last year to $96 million this year.
Giles said the effect on community college campuses has included a decreased number of evening and weekend classes and closing of libraries and other resources.
Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, wondered how colleges located in the sweltering desert or Central Valley areas could afford air conditioning for spring, summer and fall classes without additional state support.
"They can't change nature," she said.
The Assembly Higher Education Committee held a hearing Tuesday to learn how the energy crisis is affecting higher education. The committee took no action. Lawmakers are continuing to debate how the state should respond to the crisis, and the budget won't be written until next June.
Most of California's public colleges and universities currently have relatively low electricity rates because of long-term contracts signed with Enron Energy Services.
The nine University of California campuses get 58 percent of their electricity from Enron through a contract tied to 1998 rates and lasting until 2002.
UC gets the rest of its power from federal or municipal power agencies or from cogeneration plants at six campus locations, said Bocchicchio
California State University also has an Enron contract for its 23 campuses, said Drohan.
The Community College League, a nonprofit corporation that represents community college districts, enrolled 36 districts with 49 colleges in a similar Enron contract that lasts through 2003, said Giles.
Statewide, there are 72 locally run community college districts with 108 campuses.
Some colleges and universities have been hit by higher electricity bills or power outages because they signed up years ago for the utilities' "interruptible" programs, which gave them lower rates in exchange for cutting power usage during serious shortages.
There have been at least 14 such shortages since Jan. 1.
Four CSU campuses and 19 community college districts were part of those programs. In some cases they chose not to cut back on power use and face fines instead, officials said.
The interruptible programs were suspended last month by the state Public Utilities Commission.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 13, 2001