California crisis brings new talk of energy conservation

The Associated Press
Saturday May 05, 2001

In the 1970s, energy conservation was Jimmy Carter in a cardigan telling people to bundle up and turn down the heat. Today, it’s about using energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, computerized thermostats and motion sensors. 

To many Americans, California’s energy crisis is a problem isolated on the West Coast. Yet it has resurrected interest in conservation that hasn’t been heard since gas lines and the OPEC oil embargo more than two decades ago. 

President Bush on Thursday ordered federal agencies to cut power use in California where rolling blackouts have catapulted the debate over future energy supplies to the top of the national agenda. 

Bush’s conservation message came just days after Vice President Dick Cheney, who claims the whole nation could face blackouts like those in California unless it finds more oil, natural gas and coal, said America cannot “simply conserve or ration our way out of the situation we’re in.” 

Environmentalists maintain the Bush administration is using California’s electricity crisis – largely due to a failed attempt at electricity deregulation – to push through a broader energy plan to drill for oil and natural gas in now off-limits areas of Alaska and the West. Hardly any power plants run on oil, they note. 

And energy-conservation groups say if everybody made better use of the energy already being generated, America would not need many of the 1,300-plus power plants that Bush and Cheney say demand will require over the next 20 years. 

Nobody will have to sit in the dark, they say, if it were made easier for Americans to use less energy through more fuel efficient light bulbs, motors, automobiles, office buildings and homes. 

“In today’s world we are not asking people to not use their (air conditioning) – that is not today’s message of conservation,” said Rozanne Weissman, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based nonprofit group. “What we need to do is look at using our energy more efficiently and using today’s technologies to help do it for us.” 

According to the alliance: 

• If each household in the United States replaced four regular 100-watt bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, the output of 30 medium-sized power plants (each with a 300-megawatt capacity) would not be needed. 

• If the Bush administration’s new efficiency standards for air conditioners and heat pumps improved energy use by 30 percent instead of 20 percent, the output of 138 of these power plants would not been needed during peak use times. 

Americans could even unplug idle appliances – TVs, VCRs, cable boxes, CD players and microwaves – when they go out of town. Some of these appliances continue to consume energy when switched off. The power keeps display clocks lighted and memory chips and remote controls working. The alliance says these electric leaks cost consumers more than $3 billion a year. 

Conservation does help, according to Alexandra von Meier, director of the Environmental Technology Center at Sonoma State University in California. She told a House energy subcommittee on Thursday that residential and commercial buildings use about 35 percent of the energy – electricity and fuels – in the United States. 

“This amount of energy can be cut in half, if not more, by implementing the things we already know about how to make buildings more energy efficient and, at the same time, more comfortable,” she said, explaining how Venetian blinds hung on the outside of the technology center keeps the glass from transferring heat. 

Howard Geller, former executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, told the committee about an Energy Department study in November 2000 that said increasing energy efficiency throughout the economy could cut national energy use by at least 10 percent by 2010 and by 20 percent in 2020. 

“Even though the United States is much more energy-efficient today than it was 25 years ago, there is still enormous potential for additional cost-effective energy savings,” said Geller.