Study: Electricity Usage Is Down

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Last year, as gas prices broke $4 a gallon and the U.S. economy put a wheel in the ditch, the Washington region did something improbable.

It became slightly friendlier toward the climate.

Slightly.

A new Washington Post analysis shows that local homes and businesses used about 2 percent less electricity in the first nine months of 2008 than they did in 2007. That's a small drop, but for Washington, any drop is significant: Electric power is the region's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, and in recent years power use has grown rapidly.

The news cheered local officials, many of whom have promised to cut emissions sharply.

But it also illuminates the work they still have, cajoling or forcing residents to change old behaviors. Last year, a spike in fuel prices, a spell of mild weather and a historic recession barely dented the region's problem.

"Things may get worse before they get better," Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said earlier this week at a news conference announcing new proposals to shrink the county's carbon footprint. "But someone has to start."

The Washington Post estimated recent trends in the region's carbon dioxide emissions using sales data from electric utilities and government figures for miles driven on local roads. Together, these two sources account for about 70 percent of local emissions, leaving out things such as methane from local cows, airplanes and oil-burning furnaces.

The analysis, using methods from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, appears to offer the first glimpse of regional emissions since 2005.

It shows that for two years -- even as local governments promised to reduce greenhouse gases -- the region was pumping out more and more of them. Emissions from the two sources grew 1.2 percent per year on average in 2006 and 2007.

That was slower than the growth of the region's emissions in the booming first years of this decade. But it was still about 50 percent higher than the national rate for 2005 to 2007. Local emissions still appear to have been borne upward by bad traffic, centers for computer servers, extensively wired suburban houses and a steady, government-centered economy.

Then came 2008, and a glimmer of good news about electricity. Vehicle-travel figures from last year are not available yet.


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