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Conservation Up During California Power Crisis - 2001-08-04

Californians have reduced their energy use dramatically since a power crisis hit the state last year. California officials now say their state is the most energy-efficient in the nation. They hope the reductions in energy use are permanent.

California has experienced six days of intermittent power cuts, known as "rolling blackouts," so far this year. But none has come this summer.

State officials say that is partly due to good luck. Temperatures have been cool, which has reduced the use of power-draining air-conditioners. The officials also say Californians are responding to a message of conservation, reducing their power use by more than ten percent this year. Figures for June show an even higher reduction of 14 percent compared with June last year, according to Wally McGuire, who runs the California conservation program.

"More than anybody really expected, I think people have really pulled together," says Mr. McGuire. "And quite frankly, when you can cut 14 percent of your energy use and avoid blackouts in a summer when everybody though we were going to go dark, that's an incredible success. And I really attribute it to the people who really came together and said let's do this, let's take care of it."

Mr. McGuire points out that unlike other commodities, electrical power cannot be stored. And late each afternoon, electricity use surges. Some people are still at work while others are at home, using lights, computers and appliances.

Consumers are being asked to shift their power use, whenever possible, to off-peak hours when supplies are greater. That means homeowners are asked to postpone washing their clothes and dishes until after 7 p.m. Farmers are also asked to use electrical irrigation pumps in the evening.

The concept, known as "load shifting," is used in California's hydroelectric plants. Water is pumped to the top of a hill at night when power is cheap, and sent downhill through generators during the day when power is expensive.

Joe Eto conducts energy-use research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, near San Francisco. He explains there are three kinds of conservation, and the first is the least appealing. "There is the kind of sit in the dark conservation where you do without," he says. "There is the kind we like to promote here at the Berkeley lab, which involves doing the same with less, which we call energy efficiency. The more recent form of conservation has to do with being able to moderate your load in response in a controlled sense, in response to either a price or to a signal from a system operator."

That kind of conservation is underway in California, where some companies and universities reduce their power use when supplies in the state are low. In exchange, they receive a reduction in their electricity rates.

Mr. Eto says information is important in encouraging energy savings. He notes that new technology will soon allow local utilities to pass along the actual price of power to their customers. Meters in homes and business will display the hourly cost, discouraging consumption in peak hours.

According to public opinion analyst Mark Baldasare, Californians are paying closer attention to their power crisis than they paid to the last presidential election. Mr. Baldasare, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, says, "I've never seen an issue that's captured public attention as much and for as long as the electricity situation in the state. Eight out of ten Californians have been closely following the story since January, and more than half of Californians describe this as the most important issue facing the state."

Consumer activist Nettie Hoag has spent years urging consumers to conserve electricity, but until an energy crisis struck, nobody listened. Ms. Hoag is director of TURN, The Utility Reform Network, which is based in San Francisco. "Now every single person in California cares and they care deeply and we have begun to conserve," he says. "We have begun to invest in energy efficiency, and we have begun to invest in renewable energy. And those are the silver linings."

Some companies in the high-tech region of Silicon Valley have taken the message to heart. Intel Corporation ordered a 10 percent reduction in energy use at its worldwide facilities after seeing major savings based on conservation efforts in California.

New power plants are going on line in the state, helping to relieve the shortage. Conservation official Wally McGuire says, with any luck, conservation habits now being developed will bring a permanent change in behavior, even when power supplies are again abundant.

Photos by VOA's Mike O'Sullivan