Standing in front of a powerplant nearing completion, California Gov. Gray Davis (D) on Feb. 8 unveiled a program to speed up permitting and construction in his power-starved state and named an energy construction czar to drive the program. Declaring, "We are moving heaven and earth," Davis said his goals are to add 5,000 Mw to the state's capacity by this July, 5,000 Mw more by 2002 and 20,000 Mw by summer 2004.

Industry observers are hopeful, but are reserving judgment about the effectiveness of the various moves by Davis and the state legislature. "There's a tremendous amount of effort moving in the right direction, but it's difficult at this point to tell" whether it will move construction and permitting ahead fast enough, says Thomas T. Holsman, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of California.

Invoking his emergency powers, Davis authorized the California Energy Commission, Air Resources Board, Public Utilities Commission and other regulators to shorten review processes and remove administrative obstacles to powerplant siting. A CEC-administered fund would pay owners a bonus for plants on line by July. Davis also called for legislation giving local agencies financial incentives to speed permitting.

CONSTRUCTION CZAR. To oversee the state energy program, Davis appointed Larry Hamlin, a top executive now on leave from Southern California Edison Co. Hamlin is "extremely well thought of in the state," says Richard G. Engel, ceo of Powerplant Maintenance Specialists Inc., a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based mechanical contractor. Engel calls Hamlin "progressive and entrepreneurial."

But Tom Williams, spokesman for Duke Energy North America, cautions that even with expedited review, powerplant construction takes time. "We're already working round-the-clock on Morro Bay [in San Luis Obispo County] to make our 2002 deadline," he says.

While Davis' actions were presented as taking a sword to the Gordian knot of red tape that has entangled powerplant approvals, at least one developer feels still more action is needed. AES Pacific, San Francisco, could add 450 Mw to the grid by July 1, says Aaron Thomas, AES manager. The developer is awaiting CEC approval of a $130-million modernization at its 563-Mw natural-gas-fired Huntington Beach plant. Because Davis' orders apply to applications for new plants, not expansions, it doesn't help Huntington Beach, notes PMSI's Engel, the project's mechanical contractor. "It would take an emergency declaration by the governor himself" to get approval in time, Engel says.

The National Hydropower Association, Washington, D.C., adds that the state could gain 2,500 Mw by upgrading existing hydroelectric plants. A further gain of 10,400 Mw would result from installing hydroturbines on dams that now have none, says David Tuft, NHA spokesman.

SEEKING HELP. On Feb. 8, Davis wrote to President Bush asking him to "expedite permitting by all appropriate federal agencies," including the Environmental Protection Agency. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that several Cabinet secretaries are reviewing Davis' request. "The administration is very well aware of the need to move promptly to help California," he says.

In other developments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 9 allowed California EPA to use emergency generators until March 11 to avert blackouts. The state's authority to use the generators was to expire on Feb. 11 and California EPA Secretary Winston H. Hickox had asked U.S. EPA to extend the authority "indefinitely." Robert Brenner, acting assistant administrator of U.S. EPA granted the state a one-month extension, but promised to work with Hickox on a longer extension.