North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

April 19, 2001

HSU investigation underway

TV-turnoff week celebration

Woody and the Mothership

Eel River makes national news

Teacher resource center open

HOPE Coalition expands

Redwood: the national tree

Whatever happened to Green Mountain Energy?

HSU investigation underway

A top fund-raising official at Humboldt State University suddenly resigned last month and an investigation has been launched by university police into possible criminal activities.

John Sterns, executive director of university advancement since 1998, had resigned his post effective March 30. But March 20 campus police were called to stand by while Sterns cleared out his office.

"Information came to our attention regarding some activities that may be criminal in nature and we initiated an investigation," said HSU Police Chief Bob Foster.

While not commenting on the Sterns case directly, Foster said an investigation of this nature involves "looking for a paper trail to support any allegations of wrongdoing" and enlisting the help of specialists such as accountants and computer software experts. Foster confirmed that he has been consulting with the county district attorney's office as well.

Sterns was in charge of alumni relations, fund-raising and media relations. He also was the university administrator for KHSU, the campus-run public radio station, the HSU Natural History Museum in Arcata and the HSU First Street Gallery in Eureka.

Elizabeth Hans has been appointed interim director of university advancement. Recruitment for a permanent director is underway.

Sterns was scheduled to start a similar fund-raising position for the Crocker Art Museum in Sacrament April 1, but a spokesperson said he is not employed by the museum "and is not expected."

Sterns could not be reached for comment.

TV-turnoff week celebration

Humboldt Teaching Media Literacy has announced that April 23-29 is TV-Turnoff Week.

Americans watch, on average, four hours of television a day. That means they are spending half as much time in front of the tube as at work -- a full two months year. HTML advocates sensible use of media. Julie Moranda, HTML chairperson, said that taking a week-long break will help people to realize what effect TV is having on their life.

HTML will hold a TV-Turnoff party at 3-2-1 Coffee in Eureka April 25. See this week's Calendar for details.

Woody and the Mothership

Activist/actor Woody Harrelson rolls into Arcata next weekend as part of a West Coast journey he calls, "On the Road and Off the Grid."

Harrelson is bicycling from Seattle to Santa Barbara with a group of friends, stopping at college campuses along the way spreading his message of "Simple Organic Living" -- SOL, for short. His stop in Arcata includes a speech on Saturday, April 26, at Humboldt State University's Arts and Music Festival and Renewable Energy Fair.

"The time is now to halt the destruction of our rain forest by industry and the poisoning of our bodies by pesticides. We need to change the devastating impact our species is having on this planet and realize the impact current corporate culture is having on us. We can wrench ourselves from the corporate grid," Harrelson said in a tour press release.

During the tour Harrelson and company are being followed by a bus he purchased and dubbed "The Mothership." The futuristic vehicle is outfitted with a kitchen with solar-powered appliances and a greenhouse that produces organic foods. The bus runs on bio-fuel made from vegetable and hemp seed oil. It will stop to fill up at HSU's CCAT House where residents recycle waste fryer oil into fuel. (See "Life at the CCAT house" April 5.)

"I don't think of myself as a political activist, but an economic activist," said Harrelson. "Did you know 95 percent of the world's paper was made from hemp? That everything made from a hydrocarbon can be made from a carbohydrate? So, why are we making plastic from petroleum?"

Among those on the road with Harrelson is documentary filmmaker Ron Mann, whose previous films include Comic Book Confidential, Twist and Grass. Mann has been following the tour with camera in hand since its early planning stages around Harrelson's kitchen table.

"On the Road and Off the Grid" is produced by the Spitfire Foundation, an organization created in part by Zack De la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. Previous Spitfire speaking tours have included Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, Michael Franti, Jello Biafra and Julia Butterfly Hill.

Eel River makes national news

Not only are the fish that swim in the Eel River's waters threatened -- the river itself is endangered, according to Washington D.C.-based environmental group American Rivers.

The Eel received the dubious honor last week of being named as the No. 3 most threatened river in the country. American Rivers, like North Coast river advocates, places the blame squarely on the Potter Valley Project, which diverts water from the Eel to the Russian River for domestic and agricultural uses.

The listing is useful to river advocates because it draws national attention to the ailing waterbody at a crucial time. A decision on whether to reduce the amount of water taken from the Eel is being considered by the federal government.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game have backed a 15 percent reduction in water diversion, but the National Marine Fisheries Service has yet to sign off on the proposal. NMFS had previously stated that 15 percent would be insufficient to protect threatened salmonid fish species in the river.

The Potter Valley Project, built in 1910, is ostensibly a hydroelectric power plant but produces a marginal amount of power -- enough to supply just 9,000 homes.

Considered even more endangered than the Eel were the Missouri River, which flows from Montana and North Dakota to Missouri, and the Canning River in Alaska.

Teacher resource center open

The Humboldt County Office of Education has opened a new Teacher Resource Center next to its headquarters in Eureka. The center contains more than 3,100 teacher resources, such as curriculum kits and visual aids. It also houses more than 130 units of audiovisual equipment, 8,900 videos and 26,750 books.

An open house is scheduled for April 23. See this week's calendar for details.

HOPE Coalition expands

"Our intent is to involve all the progressive groups in the county and have them link together to better accomplish their goals," said Mayer Segal of Humboldt Organized for People and the Environment, or HOPE.

In the past the coalition, operated by volunteers, kept a low profile. Segal said plans call for membership dues to help build a financial base from which the coalition can operate more aggressively.

Possible goals include a physical location and a paid staff, all with the end result of being able to bring groups with similar goals together to further a progressive vision for the county, Segal said.

Even groups with potential for conflict -- like labor organizations seeking to retain jobs and environmentalists who want to limit resource extraction -- "realize they have more in common than not" when they make contact, he said.

Those interested in helping the coalition reorganize are meeting April 22 from 3-5 p.m. at the Arcata Service Center, 501 Ninth St. Bring a potluck dish and ideas.

Redwood: the national tree

The Arbor Day Foundation is searching for America's favorite tree -- and you can help.

The foundation will be collecting votes for the National Tree until April 26. The tree chosen should be "the best symbol for America," according to a foundation statement.

Humboldt County's own sequoia -- the large, stately softwood sans taproot -- has been one of the top five contenders so far.

To vote, visit

-- reported by Arno Holschuh, Bob Doran, Judy Hodgson

Whatever happened to Green Mountain Energy?

Whatever happened to Green Mountain Energy Co.? When California deregulated its electric system in 1998 it kicked open the door to competition for residential service and about 2 percent of the state's electric customers opted to switch to one of several direct-access companies that set up shop. Many who switched -- especially in Humboldt County -- chose Vermont-based Green Mountain, an eco-friendly company that offered toy earth balls and packs of wildflower seeds as promotional items.

But if you are among 55,000 California customers who switched to Green Mountain, you received news in January that the company was dumping your account back to PG&E in the wake of the energy crisis. Green Mountain claims it was forced to quit because the state's power market infrastructure collapsed -- and that it is now prohibited by new laws from re-entering the market.

According to Rick Counihan, Green Mountain's vice president and general manager in charge of the California office, the company got out of the energy business in California because of the failure of the state's Power Exchange (PX).

What exactly was the Power Exchange?

"It was a nongovernmental agency created by the state to be like the stock market, where people bought and sold electricity," explained Guy Phillips, chief consultant to Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Fred Keeley, in an interview from Sacramento.

"If you were a generator, you'd call up and say, `I've got this many kilowatt hours I want to sell at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon and here's the price I want' and the PX's job was to find a buyer, a marketer for that electricity."

When the California PX went out of business in late January, it left companies like Green Mountain in limbo. The PX not only served as a source of electricity, it provided energy companies with an approximate price for electricity in the state. Both the prices Green Mountain paid for wholesale energy and demanded for the retail energy it sold were based on the PX

"We were sitting there with 52,000 customers and wholesale contracts with our suppliers both indexed to something that no longer existed," said Counihan. "That's what pushed us over the edge and made us `revert' our customers. The PX wasn't posting a price anymore."

Phillips, who was once a Green Mountain customer himself, tells the story a bit differently. He says the company left the business because it was no longer able to compete.

"You and I signed up with Green Mountain for two reasons -- one, because we wanted to support green energy, and two, because they were offering a price competitive with PG&E. Until January of this year when the rates were raised, PG&E's electric rate was 5.7 cents. That's the price Green Mountain had to compete with to win you away from PG&E. Well, prices in the PX haven't been at 5.7 cents for over a year. The thing that put them out of business was a wholesale market that was out of whack."

The PX was replaced by a computerized system called the automatic power exchange (APX).

"It does not work nearly as well," said Phillips, "and it does not produce the main thing that the PX provided which was a day ahead, two days ahead or week ahead marketplace instead of a spot market. Today we're paying the highest price at the spot."

In February, in an attempt to add some stability -- and to deal with the energy shortage that led to rolling blackouts -- the state entered the energy market, and, according to Counihan, created a new problem for the direct-access companies.

Last week former Green Mountain customers found a copy of the company newsletter, Small Planet News, in their mailboxes. A piece written by Counihan read, "California customers, we need your help!" and included details about a little known clause in a recent piece of legislation that suspended consumers' right to choose an alternative electric service provider.

"AB1X, which was passed by the Legislature in February and signed by the governor, allowed the Department of Water Resources to buy power on behalf of Californians, which according to the papers, they've been doing at a rate of $50 million a day. Stuck in the middle of that legislation is a clause that says the PUC can suspend customer choice for retail end-use customers for as long as the state buys power. It hasn't been widely reported."

Counihan contends that if power prices dropped to the point where Green Mountain wanted to re-enter the market, they couldn't.

"That's not true," said Phillips who helped draft AB1X. He claims the clause in question is a temporary measure designed to protect California taxpayers. The problem the state is facing now is that Department of Water Resources is entering into long-term contracts at a high rate.

"That's the consequence of going into a market when it's high and saying, `I want to buy a lot.' You have to pay a lot. Frankly I've been distressed by the size and price of these contracts, but that's what the state has had to do.

"The section in AB1X was consciously written to keep people from gaming the state by buying electricity when it's cheap and then dumping the state when it's not cheap anymore. It was done so that if people are to enjoy the benefits of buying from the state, they will have to be with us in the bad times too."

Is the state excluding the alternative energy companies because it is now in the power business?

Counihan thinks so.

"Depending on how you pitch it, the fact that the state sees itself as a major buyer of power and a supplier to residential customers either means they're monopolists and they don't want competition, or they are concerned that if they buy a lot of long-term power contracts and five years from now new power plants come on line and the price of power drops, they'll be sitting there holding high-priced contracts while customers defect and go to another alternative provider, leaving the state holding the bag," he said.

"Down the road sometime everyone has their fingers crossed hoping that the price drop from 25 cents to something like 6 cents or 7 cents where they used to be," said Phillips. "Actually a year ago they were 3 cents or 4 cents. When they do get there, DWR will be taken out of the power-buying business, because the state is only in the power-buying business because it's so expensive no one else can afford to do it. When prices come down DWR won't be buying power any more.

"We have two pieces of legislation we're working on to fix the direct-access problem so that some time in the future, when there is a direct access market, guys like Green Mountain will be able to play."

Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina Del Rey and chair of the Senate Energy Commission, drafted SB27X that deals specifically with the clause. Another bill, AB21X, addresses the same issue.

"We're going to move one of them in the next two weeks," said Phillips. "We're in the middle of the fray right now deciding which one is going to move."

Even Counihan admits that the Legislature has "thornier problems to deal with." For example, how do we get out of this mess?

"We have to fix the market," said Phillips. "We have to fix it in order for the utilities to get back on their feet, in order for the direct-access providers to get back into the business. And we have to fix it so the state can get out of the power business."

How do you fix it?

"That's what the Legislature is currently working on," said Phillips.

And when things settle down will the consumer still have a choice?

"That is in fact the topic we were discussing here today. People here are trying to figure that out."

-- reported by Bob Doran


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