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People power: State slashes electricity use

By Edie Lau -- Sacramento Bee Science Writer

Published 5:30 a.m. PST Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2002

Faced with the prospect of blackouts and bombarded by pleas to conserve, Californians consistently used less electricity through most of 2001, even after the power crisis eased, judging from figures from the state Independent System Operator.

From January through November, consumption was 5 percent less than in the same period in 2000, according to tallies by the ISO. Data for December aren't available yet.

The ISO handles electrical transmission for about 75 percent of California, including the three investor-owned utilities. Its figures don't reflect electricity use in most public utilities, such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

Sacramento's conservation figures were even greater: Total consumption was down by nearly 15 percent between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30.

"So the big headline for all of us was that the voluntary reduction exceeded everyone's expectations," said an exultant Scott Matthews, deputy director of energy efficiency for the California Energy Commission.

Last spring, Gov. Gray Davis had called on Californians to cut their energy use by at least 10 percent to avoid rotating summer blackouts.

Because the supply shortage has abated, at least for now, energy demand forecasters expect the level of conservation also to abate in coming months.

That seemed to begin happening in October, when Californians served by the ISO shaved a bare 1.34 percent off their use from the year before. But in November, the savings rate bounced back to 5.1 percent.

Consumers did best in the summer, cutting electricity use by 8.5 percent in June, and 9 percent in August.

Bill Marcus, an economist and energy consultant at JBS Energy in West Sacramento, predicted that people will resume at least some of their more consumptive routines. His own behavior is a case in point.

"I have turned my lights back on," Marcus said. " ... Sitting here in a dark hole with a task light is something I'm willing to do if the alternative is blackouts and price gouging, but it is not wonderful for productivity."

Moreover, Marcus finds the darkness depressing. "I'm not going to sit here and give myself seasonal affective disorder if we're not in absolute crisis," he said.

But if the threat of rolling blackouts has faded, the threat of big bills has not. Electricity rates went up in 2001 for the majority of Californians, and the price is incentive enough for some to maintain their conserving ways.

"We're still doing it," said Cheryl Stepp. "You never know when you're going to have another power crisis."

Stepp lives in West Sacramento with four other adults and a child. She reported that their monthly combined gas and electric bill has not exceeded $100.

During last year's crisis, Stepp taped signs all over the house: "Turn off the lights when you're done." "Turn off the TV and the lights when you leave." She grinned, remembering how her brother ran into a sign on his way out the door, and backtracked to turn off the television. "It worked!"

The signs are gone now, but everyone still diligently hits the "off" switches.

"You don't even think about it," Stepp said. "It's just like brushing your hair or brushing your teeth before you leave."

How typical is her household? The Energy Commission has hired a team headed by a Washington State University researcher for a $1.2 million study to dissect the state's conservation patterns and practices of the past year.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity to (examine) this unprecedented conservation effort," Matthews said.

It may also help sort out how much of the energy savings can be credited to people's direct actions, and how much reflected the slowing economy.

At the core of the study is a telephone survey of more than 1,800 people that asked what conservation measures they took, if any, and why; whether they'll continue those practices; and whether they have plans to make major investments in energy efficiency, such as by buying more efficient major appliances or double-paned windows and the like.

Supplementing the survey will be an analysis of the participants' billing data, to see how their actions were reflected in their bills.

So far, only responses from customers in Southern California Edison's service territory have been analyzed, said Sylvia Bender, supervisor of the Energy Commission's data collection unit. From those responses, researchers have gleaned these trends.

  • 82 percent reported taking some action to save energy.
  • Most said they took at least four different actions.
  • The most common actions were turning off lights, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, adjusting the thermostat on the air conditioner or turning off air conditioning altogether.
  • The greatest motivations were "to stop suppliers from overcharging" and "to avoid blackouts." Eighty percent of respondents cited those reasons as "very important."
  • 73 percent said they were willing to continue skimping on power use.

Researchers will check back in coming months to see how well the conservation practices stick.

Even if people become lax, some savings will continue automatically because many energy-efficient appliances were installed in 2001.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. reported issuing about $30 million in rebates to its Northern California customers.

The single biggest purchase was for "Energy Star" refrigerators, of which PG&E customers bought 94,800. Customers also bought 4 million compact fluorescent light bulbs; 28,918 clothes washers; 23,186 dishwashers; 14,189 whole-house fans; 4,265 central air conditioning systems; 3,562 gas water heaters; 2,300 programmable thermostats; 889 gas furnaces; and 2.1 million square feet of energy-efficient windows.

PG&E spokeswoman Jann Taber said the new installations represent an estimated savings of 228.4 million kilowatt-hours, enough electricity to power 32,344 average homes for an entire year.

While the utility company has offered customers rebates for energy-efficient appliances every year, this was the first time in 15 years that the rebate money was claimed entirely before the end of the year.

In Sacramento, SMUD issued $3.5 million in rebates as of Nov. 30 for 45,000 light bulbs; more than 8,000 refrigerators; 450 clothes washers; more than 2,500 air conditioning systems; and 425,000 square feet of windows.

The most popular rebate offered was the state's "20/20" rebate, in which customers of the investor-owned utilities received a 20 percent credit on their bills if they reduced electricity consumption during June, July, August or September by 20 percent or more compared with the year before.

Thom Kelly, assistant executive director of the Energy Commission, said 30 to 40 percent of customers qualified each month. Full details on the outcome of the program won't be available until March.

The city of Roseville, not eligible for the state's program, offered residents its own version: a 10 percent rebate for cutting summer electricity use by 10 percent.

There, just under 3,000 out of 37,000 customers -- 8 percent -- qualified. Carla Johannesen, retail energy services manager for Roseville Electric, said rebates ranged from 1 cent to $1,500.11. The average was $26.89.

No decisions have been made yet whether rebates will be offered in 2002 by the state or utility companies.

Meanwhile, a March 15 order issued by Gov. Gray Davis requiring retail establishments reduce their outdoor lighting by half is still in effect, although no one has been fined for noncompliance, according to Hilary McLean, a governor's spokeswoman.

"We're still encouraging businesses and residents to use energy conservation measures, to try to avoid using energy during peak hours, to use more energy-efficient lighting and appliances," McLean said. "So yes, while we've made tremendous progress on the energy front, we're not out of the woods, so we need every Californian to keep pitching in and doing their part."

About the Writer

The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or

Updated: 2016/06/30

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