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Energy crisis creates cadre of tattletales

By Carrie Peyton Bee Staff Writer

(Published May 14, 2001) An energy-thrifty cadre eager to conserve every kilowatt has targeted a new field for electricity savings: the other guy.

In the war against power waste, people have been manning the phones and blasting out e-mails to utilities, state agencies and newspapers.

Why are fountains bubbling, school air conditioners thrumming at night, store lights blazing, pool heaters firing, and Marines getting unmetered electricity?

For Anne Miller, the breaking point came on a sweltering Monday night.

"That first day of the rolling blackouts when the heat hit, when I went to bed I looked at the thermostat and it said it was 90 degrees in my house."

Miller didn't want to squander electricity by switching on the air conditioning in her Gold River home, but she wanted to sleep comfortably.

"I turned on the fan and had the windows open, and I lay there and listened to all the air conditioners running," she recalled, "I thought, what's the point?"

Miller toughed it out, but later sent off a thoughtful e-mail to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, asking what good any one person's efforts can do.

Others are much angrier.

One anonymous caller to The Bee spat out a list of Roseville-area apartment complexes and housing developments with heated pools, saying "this is a ridiculous thing."

"The newspapers ought to get a hold of this, go take pictures and force these people to turn off their power so others can have necessary electricity."

An east Sacramento man wants a crackdown on a neighborhood school that runs air conditioners on weekends when no students are in sight.

A Cool resident wants the Marine Corps to start metering electricity in officers' housing on its bases.

An Elk Grove letter carrier is furious when she drops off a package at a household where cranked-up air conditioning comes blasting out the door.

Countless callers to the state Energy Commission and SMUD want them to shut down lighted billboards, golf course fountains, the empty but well-lit Montgomery Ward store on El Camino Avenue, and even their neighbors' porch lights.

You could call this the work of energy snitches. Or you could call it the voice of a new ethic.

"It is fascinating that there is some kind of moral dimension to this whole thing," said Bruce Hackett, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Davis.

"There are certain kinds of things, and the blackouts are one of them when what seems like a matter of individual preference becomes a social, and in fact, really a moral issue," he said.

It reminds Hackett of his childhood days during World War II, when he would hear his parents complaining about neighbors who didn't put up their blackout shades or recycle their tin cans and household fat.

Mithra Moezzi, a scientist, also is reminded of a war-era conservation ethic. "A lot of that involves people ratting each other out or just complaining," she said.

Moezzi empathizes with the frustration of some energy tattlers, pointing out that in a time of shortage, electricity is something we all use in common.

"Electricity is a shared resource in a lot of ways, even though you pay for yours," she said. "When it relates to blackouts your use hurts everyone else."

James Felix, a substitute campus supervisor at Elk Grove schools, has switched from air conditioning to portable fans and tries not to turn on his electric stove before 7 p.m.

But what he sees around Sacramento eats at him.

"I walked by Oak Park and the baseball field lights are on and nobody's playing. The last three days I drove by Montgomery Ward and all the lights are on. Ward's is closed. There's not a piece of furniture in there at all," he said. "Somebody should notice this and do something about it."

Virtually no one monitors California's energy hogs.

Gov. Gray Davis issued an emergency order in February making it a misdemeanor for businesses to overuse outdoor lighting after closing time, but the standard it set is subjective, with exceptions for risks to companies' employees or property.

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates with local police and sheriff's offices on enforcing the order, believes in all likelihood no one has been cited, said OES spokeswoman Sheryl Tankersley.

For the most part, the governor's order is being enforced informally by police agencies throughout the state, through speeches to chambers of commerce, impromptu visits to businesses or informational pamphlets, she said.

And the order only limits outdoor lights at "retail establishments." There is nothing illegal about lights outside a school or inside, anywhere. There are no energy police to turn down someone's air conditioner or to tell your neighbor that a pool pump should run overnight instead of during the midday-to-evening peak.

"We can't go in and turn off people's porch lights," said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the state Energy Commission, which has fielded numerous complaints about electricity squandering.

"People are getting really grumpy about stores and restaurants leaving the doors open," especially during Stage 2 or Stage 3 emergencies, she said.

Chandler recently wrote an opinion piece for a business newspaper warning merchants that "consumers know when you're wasting energy and they're alarmed by it."

Lamps Plus has gotten so many beefs about its lighted-up stores that it refers all media callers to corporate headquarters, where the company's president explains the stores use 7-watt bulbs in every lamp and consume no more power per square foot than the average household.

Some hope all the increased attention could lead to less waste.

Energy Commission forecaster Richard Rohrer, who issues monthly estimates of conservation efforts, believes Californians have cut back, collectively, about 6 percent in January, 8 percent in February, and 9 percent in March and April compared with last year.

But he acknowledges that the numbers are "squishy" and no one knows for sure. Officials with the state Independent System Operator, which runs most of California's electric grid, worried aloud last week that people may be getting tired of watching every kilowatt.

Davis sociologist Hackett isn't betting on that.

He thinks this might be "a new issue being born," one that could evolve, like recycling or second-hand smoke, into a new social standard.

"One of the things that people are doing on a widespread basis is that they're noticing the disparity between what is morally called for by the occasion we're in and what people are actually doing," he said.

If that disparity becomes grating enough, he said, the power police may not be far behind.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 14, 2001

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