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THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Retailers Heed Davis' Call for Conservation

Energy: Stores hurry to comply with governor's order to cut lighting by 50% or face fines and misdemeanor charges.

February 03, 2001|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS and ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

First came the blackouts, now come the "gray-outs"--conservation measures, symbolic and substantive, unveiled by Gov. Gray Davis.

The biggest attention-grabber was an executive order Thursday requiring retailers to cut outdoor lighting in half after business hours or face misdemeanor charges and $1,000 fines. However, that particular program exempts businesses if the safety of people or property would be threatened, and it would save only a small measure of precious electrons--mainly outside the crucial peak hours of 5 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.

Still, state energy officials said, a megawatt saved is a megawatt not burned. And many retailers Friday were eager to outline their good corporate citizenship, with some sending dispatches to the governor declaring their support and plans for compliance.

"The whole game is to drive down demand," said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the California Energy Commission.

Even savings in the middle of the night are useful because that is when the state returns electricity borrowed from the Pacific Northwest and when pumping is done to help restore water levels at hydroelectric operations, said Lorie O'Donley, spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator, which runs the transmission grid for about 75% of the state.

Davis also unveiled $404 million in new energy-efficiency and conservation programs Thursday, doubling what the state already has committed, that would save an estimated 3,200 megawatts of peak usage next summer. In all, the $800 million in programs would cut 3,700 megawatts of consumption, equal to the output of nearly eight large power plants.

Among the proposals, some of which are contained in a pending bill, SB 5X, are plans to:

* Spend $20 million on a statewide advertising campaign urging Californians to save energy and to shift energy-intensive activities, such as washing clothes, to after 7 p.m. Nearly half of the megawatt savings are expected to be generated by this campaign.

* Spend $75 million on rebates to consumers who buy energy-efficient appliances.

* Spend $155 million on demand-reduction programs that pay businesses not to use electricity.

"Conservation is not just for the enviros anymore," said V. John White, director of Citizens for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "It's the fastest, best way to stabilize the market."

In response to Davis' order, some of the largest retailers--the stores most likely to use significant exterior lighting past closing time for parking lots, billboards and store logos--dived in Friday with a flurry of ideas and descriptions of conservation plans already underway.

Wal-Mart said its new stores will have skylights, and it is taking other steps to reduce lighting; Target Corp. said its stores are under lighting restrictions and would cut back more as necessary; and Kmart Corp., in addition to its letter to Sacramento supporting the governor's action, announced it is receiving state grants to retrofit older, energy-hogging lights.

None of the retailers could delineate how much energy they were conserving or how much money they had saved with their cutbacks. But several said that any efforts are better than no efforts.

"Let's not be wasteful," said Laurel Crary, general manager of the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. "We will also encourage our tenants to look for ways to conserve."

In spite of the almost-wartime level of effort, some in retail were a bit more hesitant to jump in with support.

John Konarski, senior vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, said mall owners and tenants are unlikely to suffer ill effects as a result of the new rules, but he added that following them to the letter might not be as easy as it sounds.

"What does 'after hours' mean: Does it mean when stores close? Because a lot goes on in retail stores when customers leave," Konarski said. "What does 50% of exterior lights mean? Half as bright? Or does Nordstrom just get to light up 'NORD'?"

Still, at the Beverly Center, Crary said she would do her part after closing hours by turning off the mall's two new nameplate signs and seven groups of exterior advertising spotlights.

Mervyn's stores have taken conservation one step further, turning down store lights by 50% between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., reducing again as employees close up and then killing the lights altogether at 11 p.m.

"It looks darker in our stores," spokeswoman Anne-Marie Reid said, "but we've tried to put up signs letting people know we're open and understand what we're doing."

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