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California has appetite for electricity, but is no power glutton

Posted at 1:51 p.m. PST Monday, Feb. 26, 2001

BY ANDREW BRIDGES, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- California's ongoing power crisis has led neighboring states to accuse the Golden State of hogging electricity, saying its appetite for energy threatens to plunge the entire West into darkness.

But the numbers paint a different picture, one of a California that does use a vast amount of electricity but consumes less on a per-capita basis than all other states except Rhode Island.

Mild weather and having proportionately fewer energy-gobbling industries than some other states are part of the reason. However, experts say credit also must go to stringent conservation guidelines.

``It's true we're big, and it's true we didn't build a lot of power plants because of restructuring. But we're not energy hogs at all,'' said Arthur Rosenfeld, who sits on the five-member California Energy Commission. ``We're almost as good as Western Europe, and Western Europe is about twice as energy efficient as the United States.''

Among the 50 states, only Texas consumes more energy -- its total use of electricity, natural gas and oil -- than California. However, California ranks 47th in per-capita energy use -- well below No. 4 Texas, No. 20 Washington and No. 27 Oregon, according to statistics from the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

When looking specifically at per-capita electricity consumption, California ranks 49th. The state's residents use 60 percent as much electricity as the average American.

For air conditioning alone, a typical California household uses one-third the amount of electricity as a household in Texas or Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's 1997 Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

Experts say both weather and conservation measures play large roles in that figure. ``It's a different climate, so even if you do have warm summers, they're not humid (in California), so you don't have the big, huge air conditioning load you see in Florida or Texas,'' said Robert Latta, the survey's manager at the Energy Information Administration.

California also uses electricity, as well as natural gas, oil and coal, more wisely than most states thanks to aggressive conservation efforts started during the oil shocks of the early 1970s, federal and state data show.

Key to those efforts are stringent standards for new homes and commercial buildings that dictate such guidelines as the types of windows and lighting that can be used to the amount of insulation. Roughly 60 percent of the electricity used in California goes to heat, cool and light those structures.

``If (California) is not the leading state, they are at least tied for it'' in efficiency standards, said Ed Wisniewski, deputy director of the Boston-based Consortium for Energy Efficiency. ``Historically, they have been very progressive, and many of the programs we advocate nationally were started in California.''

The California Energy Commission, which shapes state energy policy and planning, estimates California's average demand for electricity at any given time at about 50,000 megawatts. That figure would be much greater if not for conservation efforts, Rosenfeld said.

``If we used as much electricity as Texas, we'd be a 100,000-megawatt state,'' he said. Texas has more heavy industry, less stringent conservation mandates and a harsher climate. On the residential side, Texans use 50 percent more energy per household than Californians, much of that for heating and cooling.

California's per-capita use also is lower because many energy-intensive industries are located elsewhere. Aluminum smelting and paper manufacturing, for example, cluster in the Pacific Northwest, where power is cheap and abundant.

The industries that are located in California, however, are generally more efficient in their use of electricity than industries elsewhere.

Companies use just 0.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce every dollar's worth of goods and services in California, according to 1998 California Energy Commission statistics. Businesses in neighboring states use twice as much.``The concept that California is a big, wasteful state really isn't true,'' said Latta, of the Energy Information Administration.

There's still room for improvement in California, particularly when it comes to conservation. California ranks just 17th among all states in spending by utilities on energy-efficiency programs as part of their revenues. In 1998, California utilities reduced spending on energy-efficiency programs, although the current crisis has prompted the major utilities to reverse that, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Gov. Gray Davis recently unveiled a $404 million conservation program designed to control -- if not reverse -- any growth in the state's demand for electricity. Maintaining energy efficiency and keeping overall demand in check as the population grows will be among the state's toughest power-related problems in the years ahead.

Energy use per capita is up 10 percent over the past two decades. Californians used about 7,000 kilowatt hours per year in 1980, compared with about 7,700 kilowatt hours last year, according to scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Making the job more difficult is the sprawling nature of the state's growth.Many people are moving to inland areas where they find cheaper housing but also face more severe summer temperatures that require greater use of air conditioners, Rosenfeld said.

In the region served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the demand for electricity is growing by 3 percent to 5 percent a year. ``That's based almost entirely on new customers,'' said Gregg Fishman, a SMUD spokesman. ``But what we're seeing is our average per-customer use is remaining almost stable.''

-- Swissrose (, February 27, 2001

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