States save energy, a light bulb at a time

California is encouraging residents to turn in 1 million spare freezers to cut electrical use.

Arizona is switching from incandescent to fluorescent lights in all government offices. Florida is turning off 77,000 state-owned computers each night, hoping to reduce its annual electrical bill by $4.4 million.

Across the country, states are pursuing some of the most ambitious energy conservation measures since the cardigan sweater days of Jimmy Carter.

While the Bush administration pushes ahead with an energy plan heavy on developing new supplies, many states are doing what they can to stretch a kilowatt here and wean the nation off fossil fuels there.

The state moves don't necessarily mark a philosophical departure from Washington's approach. There is, after all, a limit to what states can do to encourage more drilling and power plant construction. Nevertheless, state capitals aren't waiting on Uncle Sam before instituting their own policies - and many are more conservation-based.

One reason for the action is the simple fact that the states are where the power ultimately comes out of the socket: They're the ones who face the real shortages.

At the same time, many state officials don't see much help coming from Washington anytime soon. True, the House passed the Bush energy plan - without many changes - just before the August recess.

But when the Democratic-controlled Senate reconvenes in September, most analysts believe the White House energy blueprint will be "SOA" - shredded on arrival - leaving federal policy uncertain at best.

Forget the sweater image

To keep the lights on and SUVs running, states are not taking steps that dramatically alter people's behavior. They're stressing efficiency rather than major lifestyle changes.

Conservation "evokes images of Jimmy Carter in the White House in a sweater," cautions Thomas Feiler, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.

Among the steps being taken:

• Battling jitters over the effects of deregulation in California, Oregon lawmakers doubled the state's investment in conservation and renewables. Starting March 1, 3 percent of electric revenues will be set aside for such programs. It is a basic formula now used by at least 19 other states.

• Arizona Gov. Jane Hull (R) last month signed an executive order that flipped the switch on a comprehensive conservation plan - everything from replacing incandescent lamps to avoiding large photocopying jobs during peak hours - for all state offices.

• In Idaho, the Public Utilities Commission issued an order in May, authorizing a one-year, $168.3 million increase in retail electricity rates to recover the cost of implementing an energy conservation plan.

In many states, the energy path leaders are choosing involves some delicate political tradeoffs. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), for instance, opposed more oil drilling off his state's coast - something that many in his brother's administration in Washington wanted.

Consequently, he needed to embrace conservation in order to balance supply and demand. And, indeed, this month he set a 5 percent-per-year reduction goal in the amount of energy used by state agencies, including the nocturnal limits on state computer use.

California, not surprisingly, has been forced to adopt some of the most stringent measures. In April, Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed a bill that provides more than $500 million in conservation initiatives and incentives.

Some measures are small, such as the move to get people to decommission their garage freezers. But even modest steps can yield big savings: The California Energy Commission estimates spare refrigerators and freezers across the state consume enough electricity to power 200,000 homes.

The Golden State has already seen a a dramatic reduction in power use. While the California economy has grown by 2 percent this year, electricity use has dropped by 6 percent, according to a report last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Some of it, to be sure, is attributable to a cooler-than-expected summer. But stingier kilowatt use was part of it, too.

Still, even with all the savings states are making, many environmentalists and others believe not enough is being done to conserve energy. For one thing, some states have adopted no plans at all. The other concern is that, with the California crisis ebbing - at least temporarily - much of the momentum toward a new ethic will be lost.

Already, the prevailing trend in the 1990s, leading up to the recent troubles, was declining state investment in efficiency measures. In Wisconsin, conservation spending dropped from $133 million in 1993 to $70 million in 1999. In Washington state, the drop was more precipitous.

Overall, the NRDC's Ralph Cavanagh estimates that state investments in electricity efficiency were cut in half from 1994 to 1999. Several states phased out mandated conservation programs altogether.

Conservation or bad subsidy?

The sharp ideological divide that has flared in Washington over conservation is also evident at the state level. Critics of traditional conservation programs say they are often nothing more than misplaced government mandates. While portrayed as benign gestures, like turning down a thermostat 2 degrees, the programs in reality are funded by surcharges on utility bills. They consider this a tax that often goes to subsidize inefficient energy users.

Robert Bradley Jr., president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston, Texas, would like to see market forces, rather than the government, drive conservation policy. He advocates that consumers be able to choose who they want to deliver kilowatts or natural gas to their homes, opening up the process to competition the same way long-distance phone business was.

Such a system would allow "real-time pricing" - such as higher rates at peak usage time. "Conservation has to pass the economic test," he says.

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