Any other time, it might be hard for Gerald Thorpe to get strangers to listen, much less turn off their lights. But with the nation at war in the Persian Gulf and much of the world's oil supply at stake, Maryland's energy chief has become one of the most listened to people in the state.
Thorpe, always a pragmatist, isn't about to complain about the attention. He's well aware that this is the perfect time to try to persuade politicians and the general public to conserve energy.
"The bottom line is we've got to become more energy conscious, less reliant on oil, particularly foreign oil," said Thorpe, director of the state's energy conservation programs since October. "If you can make a good thing out of something bad, that would be it."
Thorpe took his job with a mandate: "Take an office that has a lack of focus and a lack of coordination and give it a more prominent role among state issues," Thorpe recalls being told by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
The 52-year-old former college professor hit the ground running. Maintaining his position as director of the Community Assistance Administration, Thorpe immediately ordered all state agencies to reduce their energy costs by 5 percent and let him know by March how they would achieve that goal. (Just in its northern counties and Baltimore, the state uses 1.6 billion kilowatts of electricity a year -- $96 million worth.)
Thorpe has established a toll-free number -- 1-800-492-9188 -- and a clearinghouse to provide tips on ways to conserve energy, improve home heating and promote recycling.
A program that is awaiting approval in the General Assembly would lend money to state agencies for updating lighting. Energy officials, while surveying state buildings recently, found that $25,000 a year could be saved at one building alone by simply updating its lighting circuits and adding timer switches.
In the four-story building on Calvert Street in Baltimore that houses Thorpe's office, replacing the 1,000 or so lamp fixtures would cost $38,000 but would shave an estimated $21,000 a year off the state's electric bills.
In the next decade, Thorpe plans to re-lamp all the lighting equipment in the state office buildings to take advantage of energy-conscious technology. Light sensors that automatically switch lamps off when no motion is detected in a room after a certain length of time will be top on the shopping list. Reflector systems that use fewer watts will also be used.
"The state government's got to become more cost effective, more efficient," Thorpe said.
State funds also are available at 4 percent interest to help schools, hospitals and nonprofit organizations adopt the latest in energy-saving lighting. The money comes from a fund the state set up after receiving more than $50 million from a federal lawsuit against oil companies found guilty of overcharging the public.
The energy office is also promoting alternative fuels. Six cars in the Department of the Environment are being converted to propane under a one-year study in conjunction with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. A bus in the Mass Transit Administration also is being converted to propane.
In the meantime, Thorpe must deal with the war in the Persian Gulf and the public's fear of an oil shortage. He calms people by telling them the truth.
"Unless the war is long and protracted, with many things occurring that we have not anticipated, there will be no shortage of oil," he said.
In the days since war began, Thorpe, who has a son on call for the 18th Airborne Division, has met several times with energy chiefs from Virginia and the District and the heads of the top oil companies to coordinate policy. And in between, he preaches about conserving resources.
Thorpe hopes that others calling for energy conservation and recycling will still be there after the threat to the world's energy source is over.
But he has doubts. "Energy is relatively cheap in this country. And as soon the crisis is over, it's back to business as usual," he said. "It will be very difficult to counteract that."