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Conservation dominates council meeting

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Thursday February 15, 2001

The City Council heard a range of energy crisis solutions Tuesday including bill boycotts, utility assets seizure and creating a city-owned power company. One solution was a clear favorite – conservation. 

After hearing presentations from the city’s energy office and the Berkeley Energy Commission the City Council unanimously voted to refer all of the energy items on its agenda – 10 recommendations with 56 subcategories – to the city manager. But the message was clear: It’s time to conserve energy. 

City Energy Officer Neil De Snoo underscored the best way the city could get control over its energy is through conservation. “There are built-in financial incentives,” he said. “It’s the most responsible environmentally and we can do it right now.” 

Other solutions, such as a city-owned power company and a cooperative which would purchase energy on the behalf of residents, were discussed but put on a back burner because of the amount of time they would take to establish and uncertainty about benefits. 

De Snoo and BEC chair, Jeffrey Siegel, said municipalization of the city electrical system would depend on PG&E giving the city a good price for the poles and wires and the city’s ability to run the system in a more efficient manner than PG&E.  

In addition, the establishment of a city-owned utility could take years. De Snoo said Sacramento took 18 years to establish its municipal power company. 

Berkeley is luckier than most California cities because it has been on the conservation band wagon for two years. The city adopted the Resource Conservation and Global Warming Abatement Plan in January 1998. Councilmember Linda Maio said the plan was adopted to reduce pressure on natural resources. 

“We didn’t start this plan five years ago because we anticipated an energy crisis,” Maio said. “We started it because we wanted to be good citizens.” 

One example of the Abatement Plan is the city’s 126 intersections that are governed by traffic signals. De Snoo said in 1998 all of the red incandescent bulbs were changed to Low Emission Diodes, which require much less energy. LED green lights were recently made affordable by new technology and are now in the process of being installed throughout the city. The green lights should be changed over to LED lighting by early next year. The city has no plans to change the yellow lights because of insignificant burning time. 

De Snoo said the city is saving $70,000 a year just on the new LED red lights. The initial investment was $238,000, of which nearly half will be recuperated through a PG&E rebate program. 

Mayor Shirley Dean said that city government uses 12.3 million kilowatts hours per year. She said the city has been successful in reducing the annual cost of energy by 21 percent or $252,000 by implementing energy-conscious policies under the Abatement Plan. The city currently pays an average of $1.2 million a year for energy. 

Dean and Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek have recommended a 20 percent reduction across the board for government, business and households. 

“Conservation can be done,” she said, “I think the 20 percent reduction is an obtainable goal.” 

Dean added that the city can still do more to save energy. The library and the newly remodeled Civic Center are not yet benefiting from the city’s energy savings program through the Association of Bay Area Governments. The City of Berkeley receives a 40 percent discount through the program. 

Maio said the city’s immediate task is to get city businesses and residents to change their energy habits. “Fundamentally our challenge is to change behavior,” she said. “In a way the power industry is helping by providing us with a financial incentive.” 

De Snoo said one obstacle to household conservation is education and awareness. Maio asked the Energy Commission to quickly put together a comprehensive education plan. The plan will include a variety of energy saving methods ranging from home insulation to replacing old appliances, such as refrigerators and stoves with newly designed energy efficient models. 

Energy Commissioner Dave Williamson said the commission will develop a conservation program for city residents and possibly work with other agencies to distribute the information to individual households and community groups. 

“One thing we’ve spoken about is a joint project with the Community Energy Services Corporation and Ecohouse to distribute brochures and a mailer to educate residents about conservation,” he said. 

De Snoo said education and awareness is only part of the equation. He said that people living paycheck to paycheck will have will have to have a change of heart when it comes to weatherizing their homes and purchasing energy efficient appliances. 

“They have to understand that they’ll be paying more money up front but they’ll make money in the long term,” he said.