Turn off lights when you leave ... and arrive

To avert a natural-gas crisis, White House launches a push for voluntary cutbacks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ten years ago, during the first Gulf War, the first Bush administration asked the American public to make sure car tires were inflated properly and engines tuned up as a way to help cut down on expensive imported oil.

Now, a second Bush administration - faced with the prospect of natural gas shortfalls this winter - is asking the public to pull down the window shades, switch to compact fluorescent lights that are more efficient, and use low flow showerheads to cut down on that flow of hot water. The aim: to save enough energy through the heat of the summer that natural gas storage levels increase enough to make policymakers stop sweating themselves.

Voluntary conservation is one of the few short-term measures the administration can suggest to help the nation catch up with its natural gas storage. Production can't be ramped up quickly. Imports are rising but can't fill the gap. So, Wednesday, in Washington and in a Home Depot in New York, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham kicked off what the administration is calling the Smart Energy Campaign.

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"If we use too much natural gas during the summer, the market could tighten and result in unacceptably high prices next winter," says Mr. Abraham.

The issue is critical enough to catch the attention of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who last month suggested it could negatively affect economic growth. Thursday, Mr. Greenspan will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the same issue. In the past he said one of the solutions to high natural-gas prices was to try to reduce consumption.

However, no one is quite sure if the American public will accept energy-conservation measures. Recent results are mixed. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, automobiles produced this year will get less mileage than last year's, in large part because of America's fascination with SUVs.

But, at the same time, according to the Edison Electric Institute, electricity usage from all customer classes over the past 21 years has been growing at a slower rate than the US Gross Domestic Product.

This is in line with an EEI poll in September, which found that 80 percent of Americans say they are currently taking extra steps to cut back on the use of electricity at home. The most frequent activities: 67 percent turn off lights and 46 percent limit heating and air conditioning usage.

One of those is Jeff Morgan, a resident of Rochester, Minn. Mr. Morgan and his wife, Judi, keep their thermostats turned up in the summer and down in the winter. They wash their clothes and dishes at night when electricity demand is down. They only keep a light on in the room where they are sitting. And, they recently traded in their Ford Expedition for a Ford Escape.

"Number one it saves money," says Mr. Morgan, a construction manager, "and, in the long term, I want to save energy so there is some around for my children and grandchildren."

The business sector, on the other hand, appears less active. At a recent natural-gas summit hosted by DOE, Mark Hopkins, president of the Alliance to Save Energy challenged business leaders to take a "pledge" to reduce their company's energy consumption by 10 percent. So far, he's had no replies.

"This lack of feedback is a little disappointing," he says.

If business looked hard, says Mr. Hopkins, it could find ways to cut back. "Virtually, every factory has a wide range of improvements, whether it's from maintaining the steam system to maybe turning off a blower."

Hopkins points to Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark as an example of how a company can cut down on its energy consumption. Three years ago the company embarked on a effort to cut company-wide energy use by 10 percent. It actually ended up with an 11.7 percent saving. It's now working on a new effort, which will try to target its factories to be the most efficient in the world by 2005. So far, the company estimates it has saved the equivalent of providing 700,000 US homes with electricity for a year.

"We have a staff of engineers who we have made experts on all of Kimberly-Clark's energy uses and we send them out every three to four years to assess efficiency," says Ken Strassner, the company's Roswell, Ga., vice president for environment and energy. "It's now ingrained in the culture."

Although Secretary Abraham is encouraging other companies to follow suit, the market itself seems to be having the most impact. High natural gas prices have already caused some companies to shift to less expensive fuel oil. This has helped bring the price of natural gas down. A colder than normal June gave gas producers a chance to inject a record amount of gas into storage.

But, this week, the Energy Information Agency warned that "occasional sharp price increases could occur if the difficulty of building adequate storage stocks increases."

"It all depends on the weather," says Ron Denhardt, a natural gas expert at Strategic Energy & Economic Research, Inc. in Winchester, Mass. "Unless it's extremely hot, I think we'll have close to adequate supplies for the winter."

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