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THE NATION

The All-Consuming Bills of an All-Electric Home

August 13, 2001|DIANE WEDNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'm applying for a medical-necessity adjustment on our baseline because my wife uses an electric chair to get up and down our stairs," said Long Beach resident Eric David, a retired electrical contractor. "I've done all the power-cutting I can do; there's nowhere else to go."

All-electric homeowners get a slight break through an additional baseline power allotment. Desert residents who use only electricity, for example, are allotted more summer kilowatt-hours than residents who use both gas and electricity. The utilities also are pushing for a variety of conservation measures, from adjusting thermostats to replacing dark roofs with light-colored ones.

"People living in all-electric homes have to live with the legacy of decisions that were made a long time ago," Mills said. The utilities and developers "made a multiyear decision in the '60s when they created all-electric homes. Now homeowners are stuck with this for a long time."

In the 1950s, when the all-electric home-building campaign was launched, the process of making electricity was not as efficient as it is today. The utilities rushed to build electrical plants to streamline production, and as the cost of electricity decreased, homeowners were encouraged to consume more power. The more they used, the less they paid.

To keep demand high, the electrical industry launched the Live Better Electrically, or LBE, campaign in March 1956. It was supported nationwide by 300 electric utilities and 180 electrical manufacturers.

The campaign got then-actor Ronald Reagan, the popular host of "General Electric Theater," to take his television audience on a series of tours of his and wife Nancy's all-electric Pacific Palisades home.

An in-house GE sales pitch declared that "by Thanksgiving, there should not be a man, woman or child in America who doesn't know that you can 'Live Better Electrically' with General Electric appliances and television."

In October 1957, LBE launched the "Medallion Homes" campaign, which sought to sell 20,000 all-electric homes nationwide by 1958, 100,000 by 1960 and 970,000 by 1970.

To earn a gold medallion--a decal affixed to a home's entryway and considered the apex of modern, all-electric living--a home had to have an electric clothes washer and dryer, waste disposal, refrigerator and all-electric heating.

The Medallion Homes campaign was a huge success. By some estimates, the nationwide goal of about 1 million all-electric homes was achieved, according to the Edison Electric Institute, although data on the actual number built is unavailable.

Local builders such as Michael L. Tenzer, president of Larwin Homes from 1962-75, said that his company built several thousand Medallion homes in Simi Valley, San Diego, Chatsworth and other West Valley areas.

Getting By With the Barbecue

Paul Griffin Jr., chairman of Griffin Industries in Calabasas, said that Southern California Edison offered an allowance to builders who supplied their new homes with electric wiring and appliances. Griffin built about 300 all-electric homes.

"Edison did everything in the world to promote the use of electricity," said Eric David, the Long Beach electrical engineer who wired many all-electric homes in his town.

Steve Nelson, an Edison regional manager who helped pitch Medallion homes for the utility in the '60s, said the company created "electric living centers" in their local offices, where they taught homemakers how to use electric appliances.

But that was then. Today, all-electric homeowners are waiting anxiously to see if the PUC will give them another break.

Until that relief arrives, homeowners such as Brian Fields of Cypress are left wringing their hands. "I cook on a barbecue several times a week and wash my clothes only once a week," he said. "What more can I do?"

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MORE INSIDE

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Electric Shock

All-electric homeowners pay significantly higher power bills than those who use natural gas for heat, water heating and appliances.

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Total bill: Electricity price of $0.12 kilowatt per hour, gas price of $1.50 per therm

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All-electric: $2,572

Efficient gas appliances and A/C: $1,108

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

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