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Californians' Plugged-In Ways Highlight Crisis


California's energy crisis has its roots in varied quarters. But like many problems in America the trouble begins, in part, at home.

Big homes. Homes with multiple computers and giant-screen TVs and restaurant-sized kitchen appliances. Then there are the little old homes with their leaking windows, outdated air conditioners and energy-guzzling water heaters.

All told, our homes are drawing more and more power even as local, state and federal agencies forever hone rules to increase efficient use of resources.

Residential electricity consumption has increased by 13% since 1995 while the state's population has risen 8%, according to the California Energy Commission. In the previous five years, 1990 through 1994, the population grew by 6% while residential electricity consumption increased just 3%.

Gov. Gray Davis has made conservation one of the main points of his efforts to solve California's energy crisis. But the governor may be tilting at windmills.

In a consumption-crazy society, things once considered luxuries are now deemed essentials--an attitude that some say must change in light of the new energy realities.

The excesses of indulgence can be found in thousands of new homes in tracts across Southern California's valleys and hillsides.

At the Woodlands development in Valencia, houses in the Presidio neighborhood can cover 4,800 square feet.

Standard amenities include professional-quality, six-burner stoves, giant self-cleaning double ovens, trash compactors, recirculating hot water systems, banks of recessed ceiling lights and integrated computer ports upstairs and down.

Each home has multimedia wall plates--with sockets and cable ports for TV, stereo and other enequipment--in at least four rooms, such as the family room, master bedroom, game room and office.

Speakers are placed throughout the houses and provide theater-quality reverberating stereo sound in media rooms.

Furnished models entice buyers to lay out nearly $1 million for their home purchases by adding a chilled wine cellar, a lap pool, fountains or an outdoor fireplace. Even the guard house to the 185-acre Woodlands development has a fireplace and an elaborate fountain.

Similar energy-gulping widgets can be seen in housing developments throughout Southern California, from Camarillo to the San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire and Orange County.

"If I have to have less of a yard, I want all of the amenities I can get," said Stephanie Fitzgerald of Massachusetts, who was house-hunting at the Woodlands on Saturday. Her husband is considering a job offer in Valencia.

The family of five currently lives in a 5,600-square-foot, two-story Tudor home on two acres in Southborough, west of Boston. "I want everything in the house to be done and finished without having to upgrade," she said.

That's what buyers are looking for, said Carol Garcia of Coldwell Banker Vista Realty in Valencia. "When people choose to upgrade their lifestyle, those are the things they want."

In the scheme of things, gadgets in homes are not in themselves going to cause rolling blackouts. Residential power use accounts for less than a third of the state's total consumption, and experts say older, less energy-efficient homes are actually a bigger problem because there are so many more of them.

Nonetheless, it's easier for government to place restrictions on new housing than to force upgrades of older homes--and as California looks to step up energy conservation, "draconian measures may be needed to force conservation and spread the costs around," said Paul Crawford, past president of the California Planning Roundtable.

Although appliances and computers are far more energy efficient than in the past, Crawford said, "the proliferation of those devices may have a similar effect as when California put in air pollution controls on automobiles."

"Air quality began to improve, then the improvement plateaued because the sheer volume of the number of autos offset the savings.

"As we continue to increase our enjoyment of electronic devices, even though they are energy efficient, the numbers could have offsetting effects."

Planning and development experts say that, just as the low-flush toilet and low-flow shower head emerged from the 1987-92 drought, home energy needs may soon move to the forefront as a key planning issue in new development, such as the proposed 21,000-home Newhall Ranch development in Santa Clarita--the largest ever approved in Los Angeles County.

"We don't have much of a handle on what our energy growth needs might be," said Joe Carreras, principal planner for the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the official monitor of resources and infrastructure in the six-county region. "This whole thing caught us by surprise.

"The disturbing trend," Carreras said, "is that our homes are not just a place to go in the evening and lay down our heads at night. They are becoming larger and larger, with expanded uses and a whole rich array of gadgets and technology being applied."

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