Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Californians Cut Back on Energy Consumption
Consumers Have Lowered Energy Use — Why?
By Peter Dizikes., August 24, 2001

A funny thing happened on the way to California’s dreaded summer blackouts. They didn’t occur.

The country’s most populous state, bedeviled by rolling blackouts and soaring utility prices in the spring, has turned the corner in its struggle to keep the power on  mostly because consumers seem to have been turning off their lights and appliances a lot more than they were in the past.

According to the California Energy Commission, the state’s electricity use in 2001, compared to the previous year, declined by 11 percent in May, 12 percent in June and 5 percent in July. Observers agree that the stunning reduction is at the heart of California’s improved energy outlook, along with a more modest increase in the supply.

“Energy saving is the biggest reason why we haven’t had a single blackout,” says Bill Magavern, a senior lobbyist for the Sierra Club, adding: “People are shutting off lights and appliances when they’re not in use. Sales of energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs are way up.”

Economic Incentives or Ethic of Conservation?

There’s one catch, though: While everyone accepts that Californians have reduced their energy consumption, not everyone agrees about the reasons for the cutback  at least apart from the cooler-than-normal summer weather. And it’s not clear yet what proportion of the reduction has been from private residences, as opposed to commercial buildings.

One important factor seems to be a measure by the state legislature lifting a cap on retail prices for electricity, which went into effect in June and has given consumers a good bottom-line reason to conserve.

But environmental advocates  and, to an extent, the state officials who have spent $800 million implementing and publicizing programs to reduce energy consumption  say people are already more readily disposed to conservation than is usually assumed.

Lifting the retail price limits, notes Magavern, “has got to be a factor, but it’s interesting to note we had as big a reduction in May as in June.”

Sheryl Carter of the environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco adds, “The actual rate increases didn’t start penetrating bills until late June or July,” and says if consumers were primarily worried about their wallets at that point, it was “because of a perceived increase.”

20/20 Vision

Many observers agree that the government programs have been effective, although here too it’s not yet clear if the response is due to financial incentives or a more altrusitic urge to conserve  or both.

Scott Matthews of the California Energy Commission calls the state’s efforts “unprecedented in the history of conservation anywhere in the world,” and estimates the typical citizen got nine conservation reminders from the state.

“People were bombarded with these messages,” says Matthews. The best-known programs include the federal Energy Star plan to promote energy-efficient appliances, and the “20/20” program, in which consumers using 20 percent less energy have received 20 percent off their bills.

About 30 percent of California’s households qualified for the plan this summer, although that number comes with a twist: According to Matthews, the people benefiting from the 20/20 program were already using less electricity than the average consumer, and tend to be les well-off than most.

“Energy prices have a much larger impact on lower-income people than anybody else,” asserts Matthews. “They are more sensitive to what it would do to their budget. The dollar amount isn’t very great, but it means a lot more.”

Carter also cites the heavy media coverage of the situation: “Energy was a front-page story for several months,” says Carter. “Pretty much anywhere people turned they could learn about this. She adds: “Most of the barriers to energy efficiency are information barriers.”

The California Energy Commission is currently undertaking three studies to analyze why and how the state has produced its spectacular reduction in power consumption, although they won’t be ready for several months. In the meantime, Magavern says it’s time to dispel some myths about the Golden State.

“People were saying Californians don’t want to unplug their hot tubs,” says Magavern. “But California is one of the best states there is in terms of conserving energy.”


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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