SAN FRANCISCO — Californians are buying more energy efficient refrigerators and washing machines than salespeople can ever remember, despite a blackout-free summer and assurance from state officials that electric rates should stay put or drop.
The rebates are so popular that California’s three largest utilities expect to run out of rebate money by the end of summer. The funds usually stretch until after Christmas or roll over into the following year.
Golden State residents also are burning their free time taking energy conservation classes at home improvement stores such as The Home Depot, which cover topics from installing more efficient air conditioners to properly sealing ducts that could leak hot or cold air.
“I think people are still pretty interested in being efficient for energy,” said Mike Gibbon, store manager at The Home Depot in Santa Clarita. “I don’t think anybody wants to see those blackouts.”
Replacing an old refrigerator with an energy efficient model – which can cost $550 on the low end – can net ratepayers rebate of $125 or even $200. Southern California Edison Co. even pays an extra $35 for the privilege of hauling away the old fridge for recycling.
State officials point to June’s 12 percent drop in power demand as a major reason the state has thus far evaded rolling blackouts. Cooler weather also has decreased energy usage to the point that the state has had to sell off excess power for a fraction of what it paid.
Many Californians now leave laundry and other electricity-thirsty activities for the evening hours, when big businesses are shuttered for the night and the state’s power supply is more stable. But they still pay more for power than last year, despite using less electricity.
“Everything is turned off when I’m not utilizing a room; we don’t use the microwave,” said Denise Jones, a Pinole resident who works for the San Francisco health department. “We wash dishes and use the clothes drier after 7 o’clock.”
Customers of public utilities can even plant trees to cut costs and save electricity. Sacramento has a 10-year-old program called Sacramento Shade that has distributed more than 300,000 free trees. Anaheim Public Utilities has its Tree Power Program, started in 1992, which has given away 16,000 free shade trees to help people cool their homes during the scorching summer months. It also offers a $20 rebate for trees people buy at nurseries to shade their homes.
Flip on the radio or open a newspaper. Appliance stores advertise a small fortune available in energy rebates for those who are willing to spend more money now to save money on future power bills.
“People are getting that bill each month reminding them they’re spending a lot on their electricity use and they have found that the refrigerator is the biggest electricity user in the standard home,” said Reece Williams, a salesman at Cherin’s Appliance in San Francisco.
“It’s like giving yourself a perpetual rebate because you’re saving money on power,” Williams said. Cherin’s delivers around 15 energy efficient refrigerators a day, he said.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. offer rebates on dozens of energy efficient appliances, insulation and gadgets. Just make sure to call ahead to reserve a rebate – some of the utilities say they won’t pay after the fact. PG&E has applications in the store that customers can fill out and mail in with a receipt, and for some appliances, rebate applications can be downloaded from the Internet and sent in after the purchase.
Ratepayers themselves pay for appliance rebates, low-income power bill discounts and other programs with a small percentage of each month’s payment. Lawmakers also kicked in several million more for each utility earlier this year.
Staci Homrig, a PG&E spokeswoman, said the utility has received rebate applications for 21,200 refrigerators alone, plus thousands more for other major appliances including dishwashers and washing machines.
“We’ve been trying to convey the message that if you thought about replacing your appliances, now is the time to do it,” Homrig said. PG&E plans to spend more than $50 million on rebates.
Edison customers have reserved more than half of the $7 million the utility budgeted for rebates, said Gil Alexander, a spokesman for the utility.
SDG&E already has committed about $30 million of the more than $35 million it plans to spend this year, said spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews.
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