SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Feb. 1 (RNS) -- So you think you pay a lot for electricity. Try $55,000 a day, the amount Christian liberal-arts school Westmont College ran up in penalty rates for a day's power in mid-January.

The school had been asked to cut power to zero for 15 continuoushours to comply with its money-saving "interruptible" energy contract.Westmont's normal energy costs Jan. 16 would have been $1,000, estimatedRonald Cronk, the school's vice president for administration andfinance.

Churches, synagogues and other faith-related institutions share theimpact of the California power crisis that has sent energy bills skyward, pushed leaders to talk about state takeover of generatingfacilities, and tested the policies of the new administration inWashington.

The crisis stems from the state's attempt to deregulate the powerindustry and the difficulties companies face in purchasing out-of-stateenergy. It has resulted in chronic power shortages throughout the statesince the first of the year.

While religious organizations up and down the state report increasedpower costs, among the most dramatically affected are the interruptiblecustomers who signed up to cut power on utilities' cues in exchange forrate discounts.

Nestled on the border of the picturesque community of Montecito andSanta Barbara, nondenominational Westmont, with an enrollment of about1,200 students, has been on an interruptible contract with SouthernCalifornia Edison for 12 years.

The school has to pay a penalty rate 132 times higher than its usual reduce price forthe power it uses during curtailment periods, with the rate leaping from7 cents to $9 a kilowatt-hour for any electricity the school consumes.The walloping charges in January came even after severe measures to cutconsumption, including running natural-gas-powered generators incritical areas like dorms and dining halls.

Westmont spokesperson Marcia Meier said the college had sufferedabout 12 power interruptions since Jan. 1, after "quite a number" lastfall. Before the current crisis, the college experienced only one outagein the 12 years it participated in the interruptible contract.

Cronk said officials at Westmont and other colleges that had signedup for the program thought outages would be limited to hot summertimeafternoons. "This is far from ... that," he said.

About an hour south on Interstate 101, California LutheranUniversity in Thousand Oaks experienced a similar shock. CLU,which enrolls about 2,800 students, is affiliated with the EvangelicalLutheran Church of America.

With the spring semester kicking off the next day, CLU students werescheduled to settle back into dorms on Tuesday, Jan. 16, when the callcame to cut power. Forced to "maintain basic functions," Cal LutheranPresident Luther S. Luedtke reported that day's power costs at more than$40,000.

Another Edison request came Wednesday, then Thursday. Finally, onFriday, three days into the new semester, the university called offclasses.

The trapped feeling among interruptible customers like Westmont andCLU intensified last October when the California Power UtilitiesCommission (CPCU) forced continued compliance by postponing the yearlyNovember opt-out period until spring.

"This is only a temporary suspension," the CPUC assured, "to enablethe commission to have sufficient time to evaluate this program and havemaximum flexibility and address reliability come summer 2001."

According to Cronk, "It appears that when they made this decision inOctober they did not foresee the inadequacy of the supply which begantwo months later. After a summer with 10 interruptions in two months, Ibelieve they feared all interruptible customers would opt out and leavethem with rolling blackouts as the only option for dealing withinadequate supplies."

In a reversal typical of the unpredictable back-and-forth of theCalifornia crisis, the CPUC on Jan. 26 directed utilities to suspendfuture penalty fees for customers with interruptible contracts, whilestill expecting those customers "to voluntarily respond to the maximumextent feasible."

But the big charges won't just go away.

Costs already incurred when exceeding curtailment limits will beplaced in a "memorandum account," with the fate of the fat fees to bedetermined later.

Universities and colleges aren't the only faith-relatedorganizations zapped by the California crisis.

Monthly energy bills for College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diegousually run between $7,000 and $8,000, said Keith Nyanhuis, the church'sbusiness administrator.

But when San Diego energy prices shot up lastsummer, the church's monthly bill jumped to $18,000.

The state stepped in to cap San Diego prices. But if the high rateshad continued, Nyanhuis said, "the impact would have been significant."