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New Technologies Help California Cope with Energy Crisis - 2001-08-04

New technologies and energy-saving appliances are helping Californians cope with an ongoing energy shortage. Some residents are also turning to old technologies to reduce their energy use.

At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory across the bay from San Francisco, scientists are engaged in cutting-edge research on efficient energy use. Michael Siminovitch helped develop the Berkeley Lamp, a prototype for what the scientists call the lamp of the future. It uses a compact fluorescent bulb that draws only 50 watts of power, but provides as much light as a 300-watt halogen bulb of the kind that is widely used in American living rooms.

"What we do is to develop systems that speak to both energy efficiency and lighting quality at the same time," explains Mr. Siminovitch. "And the Berkeley lamp that we've developed addresses both those issues. It really improves the lighting quality, but we also get energy efficiency as a byproduct."

Low-energy fluorescent lamps have been available for several years, but their light was harsh and had a bluish color. The light from the new lamp does not. Brigitte Roberts, an administrative assistant at the laboratory, uses the lamp in her office and says she loves it. "I find that it enhances my ability to do my job because there's less eyestrain related to working in a harsh lighting environment," she says.

The use of alternative energy is increasing in California because of a power crisis that began in the state last year. The crisis was triggered by a failed plan to deregulate the state's energy market, but other developments aggravated the problem. California has been phasing out its coal-powered and oil-powered electrical generators and relying increasingly on generators fired by natural gas. As the price of gas has risen and a drought has made hydroelectric power expensive, solar power has become an attractive option.

In the state capital of Sacramento, overhead panels provide shade in the parking lot of the local fair grounds. The photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity when the sun strikes a silicon coating, generate enough power for 180 houses.

A new housing development outside Sacramento features the same technology in a novel setting. Roofing tiles with a photovoltaic coating cover one-quarter of the roof of each of the houses. According to Donald Osborn of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the tiles work during daylight hours, when power is most expensive.

"They generate a bit more than one third of the annual energy you need, but it's the most expensive third, so it actually reduces your bill by nearly half," says Mr. Osborn. "We also have some homes being built here in Sacramento which have even higher levels of energy efficiency and slightly larger photovoltaic systems that generate between 70 and more than 100 percent of the annual energy needs."

The solar system is expensive. It costs $20,000 dollars per home, although a subsidy from the utility reduces the cost to eleven thousand dollars. Mr. Osborn notes that despite the price, solar power is a clean and reliable energy source, which is also inflation proof. Once the initial investment is made, the cost of solar power cannot go any higher.

Eight hundred homes and businesses in the Sacramento region have been fitted with solar panels. Mr. Osborn says when they produce excess power, they feed it back into the city's electrical system. That reduces the monthly bill of the solar-power users. "When you're generating more electricity than you're consuming," he says, "you literally not only feed back into the grid, but you literally spin the meter backwards gaining full retail credit for that excess energy."

In downtown San Francisco, the city's department of the environment is using new and old technology to promote what city officials call "green building." Ten projects are underway, including a 14-story office building at the civic center. Mark Palmer coordinates San Francisco's "green building" program. "There are several different components of green building," he says. "Energy efficiency is certainly one of them, and the inclusion of renewable energy sources, whether it's photovoltaics or fuel cells or some of the other things we're looking into."

Mr. Palmer says "green building" also involves the use of natural light and natural ventilation, a traditional technique that reduces the need for artificial systems.

In Washington on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved large portions of the Bush administration's energy plan. The plan contains tax incentives for the use of solar panels and efficient appliances. Unfortunately, says John Belluardo of the U.S. Department of Energy, the news media have overlooked those important elements as they focus on a single controversy. The administration proposal to drill for oil in an Arctic wildlife reserve has angered environmentalists and many Democrats. But the spokesman says the administration plan has other important proposals, which all sides can agree on.

"In those 151 recommendations [in the plan]," says Mr. Belluardo, "there are a lot of recommendations that cover alternative fuel sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cells technology. All of these are areas that need to be looked at as we try and find solutions and as we develop an efficient national energy plan for the 21st century."

Experts note that California's electricity shortage has ironically placed the state in the forefront of the search for creative energy solutions. They say an energy plan must provide new power generation from a variety of sources, promote conservation, and encourage new and old technology that makes efficient use of the power we generate.

Photos by VOA's Mike O'Sullivan