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Saving Energy? Californians Are Slipping

With no crisis, many forget good habits -- ones that state officials say still matter as final summer days approach.

September 07, 2003|Nancy Rivera Brooks | Times Staff Writer

Wally McGuire forgot to turn off the kitchen light the other day.

It would have been a minor lapse for most, but this is the man who has spent the last two years telling Californians not to waste electricity. His teenage son quickly remedied the situation.

"I was reminded," McGuire said, "if I was going to talk the talk, I had better walk the walk."

McGuire, who heads a San Francisco public affairs consulting firm, is something of a light monitor for California. McGuire & Co. runs "Flex Your Power," the state-sponsored conservation campaign credited with getting Californians to unplug during the energy crisis to avoid blackouts and high power costs.

But this year, without a state power emergency grabbing headlines, Californians have become lax, McGuire and state energy officials say. Businesses and consumers are keeping the lights on longer, running the air conditioners harder and frittering away too many electrons during the peak hours of 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Karen Nikos admits it. This summer, she has been cooling her home while she is at work, for the benefit of her 3-year-old Akita dog.

"She can't take the heat. She wasn't eating. She was just panting," the La Crescenta resident said.

Nikos noted that she obviously isn't alone. When she went searching to replace one of her window-mounted air conditioners a few weeks ago, she found bare shelves at several retailers.

State officials say that conservation matters even when there's no shortage -- and it would really become an important tool if the state encounters unexpected energy problems before the fall cool weather arrives. In addition, using less electricity means burning less natural gas to make electricity, which could help keep a lid on gas bills this winter.

It's not as if California has gone on an energy binge. The Golden State remains the most energy-efficient in the country when measured by electricity use per person, according to the California Energy Commission.

State energy officials went into this summer not expecting a lot from Californians: only about 1,300 megawatts of conservation, or enough power to serve nearly 1 million typical homes. That compares with more than 5,000 megawatts saved during peak consumption hours in the summer of 2001 and about 3,000 megawatts last summer.

The state's experts on power use can't say exactly how much backsliding has occurred, because adjustments have yet to be made for weather patterns, economic growth and employment shifts between energy-intensive manufacturing jobs and service industry jobs, which require less energy consumption.

But raw usage data suggest that Californians are forgetting some of their good habits -- much like the dieter who eases up once the class reunion is safely past.

For example, the 4.5 million customers of Southern California Edison set a power use record Friday, when consumption peaked at 20,136 megawatts as the average temperature in the utility's 50,000-square-mile territory, weighted for population patterns, hit nearly 102 degrees.

The previous record occurred Aug. 31, 1998, when Edison customers used 19,935 megawatts. On that day, the weighted average temperature was 109.7 degrees.

The utility, a unit of Edison International in Rosemead, attributes rising electricity use to employment growth, an increase in customers served and a bigger appetite for power thanks to more home electronics equipment.

Little signs of energy indulgence are everywhere.

Chris and Rosemary Daly of Yucaipa take energy economizing seriously, but lately the air conditioner is back on at night because Rosemary, a nurse who works 12-hour shifts, needs her sleep.

"We're not as tolerant of misery as we used to be," Chris Daly said, recalling how his wife became a conservation hound during the 2001 energy crisis, at least partly because she was angry with the Texas companies that own many power plants in California.

At the more than 700 Albertsons supermarkets and Savon drugstores around the state, store lighting was cut in half during the crisis as part of a comprehensive energy overhaul by the chains' Boise-based owner, Albertson's Inc. Now, the lights are back at full strength in many of the stores because of customer complaints.

'It's Dark in Here'

"Customers were saying, 'Hey, it's dark in here, why don't you turn your lights on?' " said Albertson's spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld. "We said, 'We're conserving energy,' and they said, 'But there's no power crisis anymore.' "

Californians' reduction in conservation is not so much a moral failing as a diversion of attention, said Claudia Chandler, assistant director of the California Energy Commission.

Much is different now compared with the bleakest days of the energy crisis:

* More power plants are operating in the state and more electricity is locked into long-term supply contracts, eliminating the daily fear of blackouts.

* An emergency order requiring retailers, including automobile dealerships, to turn off exterior lights after business hours is no longer in effect.

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