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California and the West

Putting the Heat on 2-Fridge Households

Electricity: Utilities intensify bid to cut the numbers of spare iceboxes and freezers, which experts say use enough energy to power 200,000 homes.


Parked next to the two cars in Gordon Gould's Valencia garage is a side-by-side white Whirlpool refrigerator, stocked with all the TV dinners, Dreyer's ice cream and cold Pepsi he can't squeeze into the duplicate fridge in his kitchen.

To conservationists, Gould's extra refrigerator--and 1 million more like it in garages throughout the state--is a symbol of how our energy-guzzling lifestyle is straining the state's power supply. To Gould, it's something he can't bear to live without.

"I need it for drinks and frozen foods," said Gould, 78, who has lived alone since his wife died last fall. "We've always had two refrigerators. I absolutely need it."

You wouldn't think of this dilemma as a key part of California's electricity crisis. Yet the state Public Utilities Commission is prepared to spend nearly $10 million this year to persuade people to turn in their garage iceboxes.

The California Energy Commission estimates that spare refrigerators and freezers throughout the state suck up enough juice to collectively power 200,000 homes. After air-conditioning units, refrigerators are considered the largest consumers of electricity in the typical household.

Many owners of spare refrigerators view them as a necessity. Whether that is true or not, people will tenaciously cling to the appliances because they offer "a little extra security" at a time in which many still do not believe that an energy crisis is real, said Dallas Willard, a USC philosophy professor.

"It represents the idea of something in reserve, and there is not very much that people have in reserve in this culture," Willard said. "We go for elaborate security systems such as SUVs with giant tires that look like they could run over small buildings, or huge ugly dogs that serve no purpose but to scare people. It's a sense of a fragility of the system put together with not being sure there is a problem there."

Then, too, homeowners can expect scant financial rewards, at least immediately, for giving up their garage refrigerators. In Southern California Edison's territory, owners are paid just $35, or offered $50 worth of compact fluorescent light bulbs, in exchange for working refrigerators. As the program expands to Northern California and San Diego County, the bounty will rise to $75. Die-hard adherents of spare refrigerators, such as Gould, scoff at such offers.

"It's important to me," he said, adding that he wouldn't consider even a $75 rebate. "There's not enough room in my other one."

He's got plenty of company. A few blocks away, Robin Ray keeps a similar grip on the 1980s-vintage Kenmore standing tall in his garage.

"I utilize that refrigerator way too much to get rid of it," said Ray, 38, who lives with his wife and their 5-year-old son. "We use it to store all the extra meat, fish and chicken we buy every time we run to Costco."

Mary Potts has both a gleaming black 23.5-cubic-foot, side-by-side refrigerator and a 20-cubic-foot upright freezer in her garage nearby.

"I know it's a luxury--we try to watch our power usage--but you need it to keep drinks, soda pops and food for parties," said Potts, an insurance executive.

State officials believe that with energy costs rising, residents will be more willing to decommission their spare refrigerators. And they point out that a recycling program in Edison's territory has been a huge success, resulting in 254,000 refrigerators being turned in over the last seven years.

Still, with more than 9 million new refrigerators sold in the U.S. each year, according to Appliance Magazine, the secondhand fridge market flourishes in classified ads and thrift stores. No one knows exactly how many refrigerators are permanently disabled or sent out of the country, but energy experts say the number of total units is not dwindling, despite recycling efforts nationwide.

With a median life span of 19 years, refrigerators and freezers "often take on a second, third and fourth lifetime," said Wayne Morris of the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers, an international trade organization.

Paul Janzen, who recently moved to Telluride, Colo., is advertising "an old junker refrigerator for $25" among the furnishings he is trying to shed at his Orange County apartment. He bought the full-size, used refrigerator for $45 from a Salvation Army thrift store 10 years ago. "It probably uses a whole lot of energy, but it still works wonderfully," Janzen said.

Indeed, experts say old refrigerators use up to four times the energy of the newest models.

"Most people simply don't think about the refrigerator as a major energy user. It's not like a hair dryer that you have to turn on," said David Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that has pushed for more efficient appliances.

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