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  • Writer's pictureGregory Loew

Forty Years of SLAC Power (1964-2005) updated November 2012

Forty Years of SLAC Power (1964-2005)

by Gregory A. Loew (article updated in November 2012)

For more than 40 years and until January 1st, 2005, SLAC enjoyed exceptionally low electric power rates for two reasons. The first was because of W.K.H. (Pief) Panofsky’s (Director Emeritus) wise planning from the inception of the lab to secure a long-term contract with the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) in Sacramento, now Folsom. Most of WAPA’s power came from dams around the Central Valley. Pief used to call it “socialist power” because it was essentially government power stemming from the Bureau of Reclamation created under FDR. Interestingly enough, the City of Palo Alto had a very similar deal. The second reason SLAC got an even better deal was because we had this large load (the linac and the other machines) which we could “volunteer” to turn off in the summer when the total WAPA load would exceed its capacity of about 1 Gigawatt. These were the famous “brownouts” that exasperated many operators and physicists but saved us a bundle. For “old timers”, the SLAC representatives who had to negotiate these brownouts were the late Larry Kral (TD) and Ev McKeen (TD retired), and more recently Chris Foundoulis (TD), Keith Reynolds (TD) and Roger Erickson (TD).

For reference, a Gigawatt is a unit of power equal to 1000 Megawatts. When SLAC ran everything flat-out in the B factory days, our meter in MCC registered about 55 Megawatts. When you are at home at night cooking a steak and running your dish washer, you may be using a few kilowatts. Note however that when you get your electric bill at the end of the month, you don’t pay for power but for energy measured in kilowatt-hours. A kilowatt-hour is what you consume if you steadily use a kilowatt for an hour (the energy consumed by thirteen 75 watt light bulbs running in parallel). As a minimum these days, depending on where you live, the so-called lifeline kilowatt-hours cost you between 7 and 8 cents. Forty years ago, SLAC probably paid WAPA about 0.2 cents, and in 2004, about 2.5 cents! Despite the inflation, it was still “socialist power”!

Actually, the maximum SLAC allocation from WAPA for a long time was about 47 MW.

Already in the PEP I and SLC days, we often ran above 53 MW and the supplemental power was bought at a much higher rate from PG&E. The average cost, however, was still cheap as compared to the market. Another feature which existed since the inception of SLAC was that WAPA and PG&E had a contractual agreement whereby they helped each other. This meant that when the WAPA dams were high, they would sell cheap power to PG&E, and vice versa, when the dams were low, PG&E would back-up (the expression in the industry was “firm-up”) power to WAPA at basically the same low price.

In the mid-1990’s, DOE participated in the funding and construction of a third 500 KV inter-tie line coming down from Oregon which enabled California (and WAPA) to procure less expensive power from the Northwest. The line ended in Tracy, near LLNL in Livermore and the opportunity was seized to connect it directly to LLNL. At this point, DOE decided that we would be in a much better bargaining position if all three DOE Northern California labs (SLAC, LBNL and LLNL) bought their power together as a single consortium. That is exactly what happened – the new consortium enjoyed virtual wholesale status, aggregating the three labs’ demand, and sharing combined WAPA allocations and a WAPA purchased power contract with a company in Portland called Pacificorp.

This favorable situation basically continued until the beginning of 2005. Around the late 1990’s, however, after deregulation, when PG&E divested itself of most of its plants, became just a power distribution company, and then went bankrupt, it advised WAPA that it would not extend the forty-year contract and would no longer “firm them up” after the beginning of 2005. With consumption up, WAPA also realized that it could no longer provide steady power as before. A wonderful era was coming to an end.

To prepare the three labs for this new situation, DOE and our EXETER consultants went through all kinds of market studies. At one point, believe or not, it looked like Enron might give us a good deal! Luck had it that we didn’t go for it. The market studies went on for two or three years until in late 2003, it was determined that DOE (with WAPA as its buyer and dispatcher) would have to go out to the real “capitalist” market for several parallel bids. This procedure, which took a huge amount of work and negotiations, culminated when the bids came in. To hedge our bets, like when you buy a mutual fund, over 100 MW of firm capacity for the three labs were contracted with two groups of companies, half in the Northwest, the other half in Northern California. The contracts span one, two, three and five years respectively. The average rate, including the cost of transmission provided by WAPA or the California Independent System Operator (ISO), is now between 5 and 7 cents/kilowatt-hour, still cheaper than what you pay at home but over twice what we pay WAPA. This is the reason all of you have been hearing all this unfortunate news for the last year (in 2004).

But hold your breath. There is a rainbow on the horizon! Because of all the rain this year, we will be lucky in late spring to still get a small fraction of our good old “socialist power” from the bulging Central Valley dams. It will keep our rates below 6 cents for a few weeks. So we can still be thankful to Pief!

P.S.: In 2012, SLAC is still under the same regime with the three-lab consortium. When our machines are all on, we use about 30 MW. The energy is still sold to us at wholesale rates by a variety of companies. WAPA provides us with about 15% of our energy from its hydroelectric generators. PG&E only transmits the electricity to us. Our average rate this year is about $54 per MWH or 5.4 cents per kwhr, a relatively good deal.

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