WASHINGTON — The evidence seemed overwhelming: During the first seven months of 2001, Californians consumed 8% less energy than they did a year earlier. If the entire country did the same, the savings would easily exceed the output of more than 110 electrical power plants.
For David Nemtzow--whose mission is to persuade often indifferent government officials, business executives and consumers to stop wasting power--the figures compiled by the California Energy Commission offered proof that conservation can play a big part in the nation's energy policy.
"It demonstrates that we could do it if there is the will among elected officials, if resources are devoted to it, and if individual homeowners and factories pay attention to energy," said Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan coalition of business, consumer and environmental leaders. "And we can do it without pain, with less pollution, with lower bills and with a stronger economy."
Nemtzow's organization calculates that if the nation trimmed its energy use by 5%, it would eliminate the need for about 110 power plants. According to the Bush administration, 1,300 new power plants will be needed by 2020 if current consumption trends continue.
But convincing the rest of the nation to take energy advice from the land of rolling blackouts is no easy task. Furthermore, no one seems certain exactly how Californians have been able to conserve so effectively.
So when the House of Representatives debated the nation's future energy policy Aug. 1, California's conservation triumph was hardly noted. And when colleagues encouraged Nemtzow to cite the state's experience as proof that the Bush administration's energy plan puts too much emphasis on production, he told them to forget it.
"California is the poster child of how to do energy policy wrong," Nemtzow said. The positive examples, he concluded, would be lost amid the roiling debate about the causes and consequences of the state's energy debacle.
Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists shares Nemtzow's caution. "California is a tricky subject for anyone to bring up. In Washington, people don't understand what happened to California to cause it to get into such a jam or what happened to mitigate it. They are reluctant to look at California for anything at the moment until more of the lessons are understood."
"We went through such a catastrophe through [electricity] deregulation, the fact that we saved ourselves, barely, is not the story," said Hal Harvey, president of the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco institute that awards grants to promote energy efficiency.
Harvey, who served on energy commissions for former Presidents Bush and Clinton, bemoaned the lost opportunity. "People still think energy efficiency is decoration. If you look at what energy efficiency has done for this country, it's staggering."
According to Harvey's calculations, the nation already saves $200 billion per year because of energy efficiency improvements and increased conservation efforts undertaken since the 1970s. But much more could be done, with little negative effect on American lifestyles, he said.
Even if public officials and business executives were lining up to learn how California curtailed its power consumption, the state Energy Commission would be unable to supply many answers, for now at least.
"The embarrassing fact is that we don't have a clue," said Arthur Rosenfeld, one of the agency's five commissioners.
It is unclear how much of the reduction is attributable to behavioral changes, such as setting thermostats higher in summer and lower in winter, and how much reflects long-term adaptations, such as purchasing energy-efficient appliances. It is not even clear if more savings came from businesses or from homes.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that a substantial chunk of the savings will stick.
In recent months, for example, Californians have been buying compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances at an unprecedented rate.
Sears is one of the nation's biggest sellers of appliances that meet the efficiency standards of the federal government's Energy Star program. About 63% of the central air-conditioning units the chain sold in California so far this year bore the Energy Star seal, compared with 17% last year, said Larry Costello, a spokesman for the company.
Home Depot's sales of compact fluorescent bulbs in California were 265% higher in July than for the same month last year. Purchases of weatherization products, such as insulated jackets for water heaters, also increased substantially.