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California and the West

Rebate Plan May Not Benefit Energy Misers

Power: State program will reward consumers who cut usage by 20%. But that may be out of reach for those who already conserve.


SACRAMENTO — They are the energy misers among us. They're the ones who listened to Mom, who have been turning off lights their whole lives. They buy energy-efficient refrigerators, install thrifty fluorescent bulbs and keep the air conditioner set at 80 degrees. Always have.

Now those same green-minded folks, who have helped make California one of the nation's stingiest states in energy use, could effectively be left out by new conservation measures.

Under the state's 20/20 Rebate Program, which rewards those who reduce power by 20% this summer with 20% rate cuts, longtime energy misers face a far tougher time trimming electricity consumption than do energy hogs who have been wasting kilowatts for years.

When announced by Gov. Gray Davis last month, the 20/20 plan was applauded by consumer advocates and environmentalists.

But now a few are having second thoughts. Some are furious.

Ellen Stern Harris, a longtime environmentalist who helped launch the California Coastal Commission, has slung e-mail all over the state capital to rail against what she says is a "grave injustice."

Harris lives in Beverly Hills, but don't let the ZIP code fool you. At 71, she has lived in her home for 45 years. She has to pinch pennies like anyone else on a fixed income. So she survives the siege of summer heat with a tiny air conditioner propped in her bedroom window. In the winter, Harris huddles under a down comforter. Utility officials told her she uses half the electricity of the typical customer in the area.

"There's a lot of people who got in the habit, back when we all stood in long gas lines during the oil crisis, of saving on energy," Harris said. "But now we're going to pay for it. I don't know what this governor was thinking."

State leaders don't begrudge people like Harris their feelings. But, they say, we're all in this together. Any conservation that can be achieved is important, and any plan to achieve it is going to have its inequities, they say.

"My view is we have to work on all fronts to promote conservation, and everyone in a sense benefits," said state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford). Though many users will have a tough time cutting 20%, Sher said, every little bit will help reduce what the state has to purchase on the spot market, which is sucking $57 million a day from California's tax coffers to keep the juice flowing.

The 20/20 program applies, with some variations, to customers of the state's three private utilities--Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric--over a four-month period beginning June 1. Even some municipal utilities are jumping on the bandwagon. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for instance, recently agreed to reward customers who save 10%.

Thrifty customers who can't get the state's conservation carrot will at least be able to avoid a looming stick: big rate hikes for anyone who continues to gorge on electricity.

Nettie Hoge, executive director at the Utility Reform Network, worries about those who had to scrimp on electricity out of financial necessity: the elderly, the disabled, low-wage workers, working single parents. Many of those have saved kilowatts for years simply to keep the utility bill low. They're already on an electrical starvation diet.

Hoge suggests a better plan would have been to compensate consumers for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they saved below their baseline, a minimum usage level that varies by location and season.

"But we have an emergency on our hands," she said. "We have to do everything we can, even if it means rewarding profligate wasters who finally begin to conserve."

Moreover, utility experts say, there are always new ways to cut usage.

"It's the rare customer who can't sharpen the pencil and find some savings," said Steven Nadel, executive director at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

While the state has often been castigated as an energy waster during the recent crisis, California in fact is "anorexic" compared to the energy diet in other states, said Francis Rubinstein of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

The state ranks 49th in terms of per-capita electricity consumption, with only balmy Hawaii more miserly. The average Californian uses 60% of the electricity used by the typical American.

Though the state's mild weather plays a large role in that ranking, California has long been a conservation leader. The state was a pioneer in requiring beefier insulation, double-paned windows and other stringent construction standards during the 1970s to cut usage.

Among new initiatives in the governor's $404-million energy efficiency campaign are $75 million in consumer rebates to replace energy-inefficient appliances, $95 million to help businesses install sensors and reduce commercial lighting, plus $50 million for a variety of energy-saving measures on commercial buildings.

Some businesses, however, have already been there, done that. And they would like some consideration from the government.

Arden Realty Inc., which has 253 commercial office buildings from San Diego to Ventura, upgraded cooling systems and lights, and installed occupancy sensors. But most of the work was done in 1999, meaning that the firm's buildings were running more efficiently last summer--the benchmark for the 20/20 program. Arden officials would like to see the program account for such recent upgrades.

"We've done all this--we've got very efficient buildings," said Greg Husebye, vice president for engineering. "It's almost like we're getting penalized."

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