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With Energy Prices Tamed, Guzzling Ways Return

Conservation: Getting Americans to reduce electricity and gasoline use will require fear of prolonged shortages and tougher laws, experts warn.


Two high-profile energy science experiments were conducted this summer, quite against the subjects' will.

The guinea pigs were California electricity customers, particularly in San Diego and south Orange County, and motorists around the country, especially those in the upper Midwest--all of whom paid record prices for the respective forms of energy.

The less-than-scientific conclusion: Consumers and business will use less of these commodities when prices shoot through the roof.

But pals of the Earth shouldn't get too excited: Now that San Diego-area electricity users have been shielded from high power costs by price caps, and now that gasoline prices have declined somewhat, we have returned to the American way of guzzling energy. Most Americans don't ponder how they use electrons and hydrocarbons, or else they've rewritten the inalienable-rights list to read "life, liberty and the pursuit of a $10 fill-up."

This matters, because getting consumers and industry to reduce energy use is considered essential to slicing through the nation's Gordian knot of energy problems. Americans consume more than a quarter of the world's oil production, and more than half of our oil thirst is slaked with imports. As a state, California burns through 20% more electricity than is generated within its borders.

Although sky-high prices did inspire conservation, the gains were small and fleeting. Turning Americans into born-again energy savers requires fear of prolonged shortages--remember the gas lines of the 1970s?--and tougher laws and industry standards, energy experts warn.

"When energy is cheap, people just don't pay attention," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "One thing we do know that really turns people into conservationists is shortage of supply. Even high prices don't really make them change their patterns."

Wholesale electricity prices that jumped 400% turned the 1.2 million electricity customers of San Diego Gas & Electric, who were the first in the country to pay free-market prices, into electron misers, at least temporarily.

On hot afternoons this past summer, the Sempra Energy subsidiary said, customers reduced peak energy use by 5% to 10%, or 200 to 400 megawatts, enough to power 200,000 to 400,000 homes.

"Our customers did an extraordinary job in conserving electricity at a time when the state's electricity grid was stretched thin," said Steve Davis, SDG&E's vice president of distribution operations. The utility received requests for 100,000 conservation booklets--a doubling from last summer.

At SeaWorld in San Diego, aggressive energy saving spared only the penguins, 350 of them, which require a 25-degree environment. The humans who work at the theme park made do with less air conditioning and fewer lights on the way to saving about $200,000 in electricity costs. Even so, the park is running about $800,000 over the $2.5 million budgeted for electricity this year, said Bob Tucker, a spokesman for the park, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch Cos.

Shamu, SeaWorld's iconic killer whale, and the rest of the park's inhabitants were put on an electricity diet as their water chillers were turned off for a few hours each afternoon.Thermostats were turned up a notch in some public areas.

"We made it a little less cool and nobody noticed," Tucker said, quickly adding that no animals were made uncomfortable.Some of those measures will be permanent, but some already have been mothballed until next summer, he said.

Until Jan. 1, P. Gregory Conlon was a top utility regulator, and until several weeks ago, he was an unwitting power waster. California's shocking electricity prices pushed Conlon to cut his consumption by half, and he doesn't even live in San Diego.

Conlon, who helped develop electricity deregulation during his six years on the California Public Utilities Commission, was one of the pioneer participants in the opening of the retail electricity market by leaving his old utility and picking a new electricity supplier specializing in renewable energy. But like many of the 150,000 small customers of retail electricity marketers, when the bills came for June and July, Conlon was stunned that his tab had doubled.

"I was wasting energy and I didn't know it," said Conlon, who confessed to having an inefficient air conditioner and a pool pump that was running round-the-clock at his Northern California home.

Electricity customers could make serious changes in consumption if they had meters that gave them minute-by-minute information on electricity prices so that it would be more evident by shifting use to low-price periods they would save money, Conlon said. But the PUC has not approved such meters for small customers.

Electricity prices are capped now for SDG&E customers, and some of the summer economizing has evaporated. Customers are using about 100 fewer megawatts of electricity at peak times thana year ago, SDG&E spokesman Art Larson said.

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