In Energy Conservation, Calif. Sees Light

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

At the height of the 1973 energy crisis, Arthur H. Rosenfeld had a revelation.

Disturbed about having to spend half an hour in line at a gas station one Friday night, the particle physicist calculated that keeping his floor of offices brightly lit all weekend as usual would consume the equivalent of five gallons of gasoline. So Rosenfeld took what then seemed like a bold step: He turned off the lights.

For 30 years, Rosenfeld has been one of the forces guiding California on a mission of conservation. And today the state uses less energy per capita than any other state in the country, defying the international image of American energy gluttony. Since 1974, California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant, while energy use per person for the United States overall has jumped 50 percent.

California has managed that feat through a mixture of mandates, regulations and high prices. The state has been able to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, keep utility companies happy and maintain economic growth. And in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming, California serves as a model for other states seeking a similar path to energy reduction. Now California is pushing further in its effort to cut automobile pollution, spur use of solar energy and cap greenhouse gases.

"California really represents what the rest of the country could do if it paid a bit more attention to energy efficiency," says Greg Kats, managing principal at Capital E, an energy and clean-technology advisory firm. "California is the best argument we have about how to very cost-effectively both reduce energy consumption and cut greenhouse gases. And they've made money doing it." Kats estimates that the average Californian family spends about $800 a year less on energy than it would have without efficiency improvements over the past 20 years.

Today, as an energy consumer, California is more like thrifty Denmark than the rest of the energy-guzzling United States. While the average American burns 12,000 kilowatt-hours a year of electricity, the average Californian burns less than 7,000 -- and that's counting renewable energy sources.

California has managed to cut its contributions to global warming, too. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita in California have fallen by 30 percent since 1975, while U.S. per capita carbon dioxide emissions have remained essentially level.

"If we're going to delay global warming, what we can do in a big hurry is energy efficiency: better cars, better buildings, better industry," says Rosenfeld, who is now a member of the California Energy Commission and who last year won the Energy Department's $375,000 Enrico Fermi Award for his contributions to national energy efficiency. "It's not the whole story. But I think it's at least half the story."

California does have natural advantages. The climate is mild in much of the state, and its high-tech and service sectors are less energy-intensive than older, heavy industry in some other states. However, even accounting for those differences, California has vastly improved its energy efficiency. The growing population and economy are still driving up electricity demand about 1 percent a year, enough to require a new power-generating station every couple of years. But if the state had not changed its pre-1974 trend of electricity consumption, by today it would have needed the equivalent of one nuclear plant every eight miles between San Diego and San Francisco, Rosenfeld says.

The reason for California's success is no secret: Electricity there is expensive, so people use less of it. Thanks to its use of pricey renewables and natural gas and its spurning of cheap coal, California's rates are almost 13 cents a kilowatt hour, according to the Energy Information Administration. The other most-energy-frugal states, such as New Jersey and New Hampshire, charge about 12 cents and 14 cents a kilowatt hour, respectively. Hawaii, which relies on oil-fired plants, tops EIA's list at about 21 cents.

"If the history of energy consumption in the U.S. has taught us anything, it is that cost drives conservation," says Chris Cooper, executive director of the Network for New Energy Choices.

Three of the nation's most profligate users of energy -- Wyoming, Kentucky and Alabama -- have one thing in common: low prices. Their electricity prices range from 5.25 cents a kilowatt hour to 7.06 cents, according to the EIA.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company