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State counting on energy conservation

SACRAMENTO (AP) – Lawmakers Wednesday debated spending $1.1 billion on conservation programs for energy-strapped California, even as some critics questioned the effectiveness of rebates and other incentives in cutting power use.

State officials are counting on consumer conservation to help get California through high summer power demand as the state faces a tight power supply and high wholesale energy prices.

The Assembly on Wednesday approved a $710 million conservation package designed to complement a $408 million conservation measure awaiting Senate action. Each bill must return to the other house before going to the governor.



Gov. Gray Davis four weeks ago asked lawmakers to approve $404 million in new conservation spending to augment $424 million in existing programs. He said the conservation efforts together could cut 3,700 megawatts from this summer’s power use. That’s enough power for more than 2.7 million households.

The measures include rebates for fluorescent lightbulbs and energy-efficient home appliances.




Such programs appear popular with consumers; Southern California Edison recently started publicizing its rebates with bill inserts and door hangers, and in two weeks has received 3,500 responses from interested consumers.

San Diego Gas & Electric distributed what was supposed to be a three-month supply of energy-efficient lightbulbs in two months, and likely will soon exhaust $19.4 million in residential conservation incentives that was supposed to last all year.

Yet critics question whether rebate programs produce the energy savings they promise.

”Most of these programs end up being a wash,” said Jerry Taylor, director of Natural Resource Studies at the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

Many residents who claim the rebates would have purchased the energy-efficient products anyway, and the incentives aren’t likely to convince those uninterested in conservation to buy expensive energy-efficient products, Taylor said.

Some programs also can have unintended consequences, he said.

Installing energy-saving air conditioners, for instance, can result in a ”rebound effect”: People rationalize that they can afford to use their air-conditioning more, Taylor said.

And people who buy new refrigerators often simply move their old ones to the basement or garage as a spare, he said.

Legislators and utilities are trying to avoid some of the pitfalls, mainly by offering bonuses to people who turn in their old appliances.

Edison, for example, says it takes into account those who would have purchased energy-efficient appliances without the rebates.

Even discounting those ”free riders,” residential rebates are expected to cut more than 100 million kilowatt hours this year, said Lynda Ziegler, Edison’s director of business and regulatory planning.

That’s enough to power 16,700 homes for a year.

Utility-offered rebates vary by company.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. offers $75, Edison $100, and SDG&E $100 to $150, depending on the model, for Energy Star-rated refrigerators that generally sell for more than $1,000.

Some groups contend legislators and utilities haven’t been aggressive enough in promoting conservation.

Five conservation groups joined forces Wednesday to accuse lawmakers of taking too long to act.

One of them, the California Public Interest Research Group, released a report touting conservation and renewable energy programs as the key to resolving electricity problems across the West.

The San Diego-based Utility Consumers Action Network questions whether utilities have done their best to publicize incentives that in fact take money out of their corporate pockets.

In a sharply worded letter to PG&E President and CEO Gordon Smith last week, the state’s top utility regulator, California Public Utilities Commission President Loretta Lynch, said the utility isn’t moving quickly enough to publicize conservation programs.

Smith replied that the programs PG&E instituted late last month ”are ahead of schedule and exceeding expectations.”

Utilities have made rebates easier to obtain, said Edison’s Ziegler and UCAN energy analyst Jodi Beebe.

”Up until recently it was incredibly difficult for your average Joe to get their hands on these rebates,” Beebe said.

Beebe said the information still doesn’t reach many consumers at the point of sale.

Most grocery stores don’t carry energy-efficient light bulbs, for instance; consumers have to make a special trip to a home improvement store. Retailers often fail to do enough to publicize rebates on specific appliances, Beebe said.

”It may have some sort of energy-efficient label on it, but people see the price tag and walk away,” she said.

That was the case Wednesday at Filco Discount Centers in Sacramento, where several customers made energy efficiency a top priority – but steered away from the top-dollar appliances that carry the Energy Star label and typically qualify for utility rebates.

Ernest and Monica Marks of Sacramento said they have cut power use in half to counter soaring electric rates.

But they turned away from an Energy Star refrigerator after one look at the $1,399 price tag.

They and other Filco customers were unaware of rebates, and a trio of salesmen there said that is typical.

”People are going to buy energy-efficient appliances whether there are rebates or not,” said salesman Mark Brandes. ”The rebates are nice, but I can’t say that it spurs any sales.”

Consumers who can afford the more expensive models are lured by energy-use savings that manufacturers say can top $100 a year on clothes washers and dishwashers, Brandes said.

UCAN’s Beebe and lawmakers including Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, worry that means the rebates won’t go to the residents who need them most: those with lower incomes who often buy old used appliances.

On the Net:

Utility energy conservation programs: http://www.pge.com; http://www.sce.com and http://www.sdge.com

UCAN’s rebate report: http://www.ucan.org.

Conservation legislation SB5x and AB29x: http://www.sen.ca.gov


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