Federal energy officials got an earful when they visited the Sacramento area to discuss needed improvements to the nation's electrical grid.
Representatives of local utilities told them their proposals could unfairly increase rates for consumers here by more than 10 percent.
"It was civil, but also very direct, and pointed in terms of the concerns that were brought forward," said Jane Cirrincione, a Northern California Power Agency assistant general manager who attended the 12-hour meeting at a Rancho Cordova hotel last week.
Local and federal officials agree that improvements to the country's aging electrical infrastructure are long overdue. They are needed to integrate renewable sources of electricity, block cyberattacks and prevent costly blackouts due to malfunctions.
The question is, who will pay?
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu issued a memorandum on March 16 describing general goals for the portions of the electrical grid owned and administered by the federal government.
In the following weeks, as Chu's staff worked on the details, frustration grew among some regional and local officials.
"They didn't look like they were all that interested in engaging us on the level," said John DiStasio, the general manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
Energy officials are now touring the western part of the country, hoping to resolve differences. They next travel to Loveland, Colo., and to Sioux Falls, S.D.
Lauren Azar, a senior adviser to Chu, attended the conference in Rancho Cordova. "We learned things from the meeting, which is precisely what needs to happen," she said.
She added that her department is not prescribing particular solutions in any part of the grid. Rather, she said, officials are simply looking for ways to transmit power more efficiently. "There are a number of different ways to do that," she said.
The Department of Energy is expected to arrive at specific recommendations late this year, after the public has a chance to comment.
Still, some of the ideas under discussion have alarmed officials here.
Two proposals involve the Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency primarily responsible for transmitting power from dams to buyers.
Chu's memorandum endorsed the power administration's entry into a new market for electrical surpluses. The market, which hasn't been created yet, would increase overall efficiency, since surplus electrical current cannot be stored and sold later.
Yet DiStasio, whose district buys 10 to 15 percent of its power through the administration from dams at Folsom, Shasta, and elsewhere, said the new market would be expensive for Sacramento ratepayers.
Instead of paying predictable prices for that power, SMUD would have to contend with the uncertainty of prices determined by market forces.
"That's a double-digit rate increase for sure," DiStasio said.
Another proposal is to open the Western Area Power Administration's lines to new renewable energy projects.
Much of the potential for wind and solar development is far from customers, and building additional power lines could be prohibitively expensive.
Jim Pope, the general manager of the Northern California Power Administration, said that just because solar and wind are better for the environment, that doesn't mean his ratepayers should help bear the costs.
California utilities have already invested heavily in renewable resources to meet the state's existing requirements, he said.
He argued that some of the proposals to change how the Western Area Power Administration operates would require approval from Congress and the state Legislature.
Regardless, Chu adviser Azar said quick solutions are an economic necessity.
"We have to act," she said. "And we have to act promptly."