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 continuous hours to comply with its money-saving "interruptible" energy contract. Westmont's normal energy costs Jan. 16 would have been $1,000, estimated Ronald Cronk, the school's vice president for administration and finance.

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

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

While religious organizations up and down the state report increased power costs, among the most dramatically affected are the interruptible customers who signed up to cut power on utilities' cues in exchange for rate discounts.

Nestled on the border of the picturesque community of Montecito and Santa Barbara, nondenominational Westmont, with an enrollment of about 1,200 students, has been on an interruptible contract with Southern California Edison for 12 years.

The school has to pay a penalty rate 132 times higher than its usual reduce price for the power it uses during curtailment periods, with the rate leaping from 7 cents to $9 a kilowatt-hour for any electricity the school consumes. The walloping charges in January came even after severe measures to cut consumption, including running natural-gas-powered generators in critical areas like dorms and dining halls.

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

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

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

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

Another Edison request came Wednesday, then Thursday. Finally, on Friday, three days into the new semester, the university called off classes.

The trapped feeling among interruptible customers like Westmont and CLU intensified last October when the California Power Utilities Commission (CPCU) forced continued compliance by postponing the yearly November opt-out period until spring.

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

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

In a reversal typical of the unpredictable back-and-forth of the California crisis, the CPUC on Jan. 26 directed utilities to suspend future penalty fees for customers with interruptible contracts, while still expecting those customers "to voluntarily respond to the maximum extent feasible."

But the big charges won't just go away.

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

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

Monthly energy bills for College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego usually run between $7,000 and $8,000, said Keith Nyanhuis, the church's business administrator. But when San Diego energy prices shot up last summer, the church's monthly bill jumped to $18,000.

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

The Rev. Canon William Dopp, communication officer for the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, said the diocese's bills also tripled last summer.

"Our local congregations took the brunt of this," Dopp said. "They all have reported to us the ... increase that they've had to deal with."

Bob Morris, vice president of development for Episcopal Community Services (ECS) of San Diego, said city and county budgets that help fund ECS programs had been building in expanding energy costs. But he worried about federally funded outreach like Head Start. If energy costs surge out of control, Morris fears services will have to be cut back.

The chair of the board for the thrift shop at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in San Diego, Dolores Barber, compared energy outlays from summer 2000 and summer 1999.

The bill from San Diego Gas and Electric was $676 in June 2000, up from $427 in June 1999. The next month, July 2000, the bill jumped to $1,267, compared to $738 the year before. In August, SDG&E rebates eased the situation.

Reactions by other people of faith ranged from simple frustration to new theological insights inspired by the crisis.

"I'm pretty much in a snit about this," said Marsha Stein, front office administrator of San Diego's Temple Emanu-El. Stein described last summer's energy hikes for the Jewish congregation as "akin to being hit by a two-by-four."

After commenting that students had resorted to shining flashlights on the board so professors could see to write, Westmont College senior Johnny Oberg recalled an inspiring message from the college chaplain about the energy crunch.

"It kind of stuffs new meaning into the biblical view of Christ as light," Oberg said. "We do take light for granted, just like we take God for granted."

Oberg's sophomore classmate Jenna Paul reflected on the bright side of the crisis-induced darkness.

"You realize the nature of God's creation," Paul said. "I never really looked at the stars," she explained. "You look up, and it's gorgeous."

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