Government in a free society can't really force citizens to use less energy. But it can create incentives to conserve. California, sprinting to stay ahead of rolling blackouts, is trying to do just that.
Bills before the state Legislature would use tax credits to reimburse homeowners or landlords who buy more-efficient appliances, create "exchange centers" where people could turn in old air conditioners and other juice-guzzlers, and encourage the purchase of solar panels.
Hopeful approaches all. But the best proposal would make customers pay a premium if they consume more than a state-set "baseline" of electricity. This raises questions about how such a baseline is determined. But at least it uses a market incentive to get people to conserve.
Gov. Gray Davis has been reluctant to face up to that fact. He's done plenty of jawboning about conservation, and has set a personal example by donning sweatshirts at home and turning down the heat. But he insists that utility ratepayers, who were promised lower prices under deregulation, should not have to pay more.
In fact, the caps now on retail electricity prices in most of California will have to be eased in order to rationalize the market and boost conservation. At that point, you can be sure citizens will hasten to do all those useful, if sometimes inconvenient things - turn off lights and computers when they're not needed, use more-efficient bulbs, buy energy-saving appliances, and even dress more sensibly.
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