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Stateside With Rosalea: 20/20 Vision

When Mark Twain wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco he wasn't joking. While the continent east of the Oakland hills fries in triple digit temperatures, SF and parts of the Bay have a low cloud cover that rolls in off the Pacific and can sometimes stay at the coast and over The City all day, though the East Bay clears much sooner. And, since hot air rises, the heat to the east creates winds off the sea rushing inland, further keeping the temperature down.

Last year, though, the weather was a little different and there was actually a heatwave, with triple digit temperatures even in SF. Last year's heatwave is this year's money in the bank. Not having had a fan on all night most nights last month, as I did the year before, meant that my kwh usage was 20 percent less. So, as promised in the plan created by one of Governor Gray Davis' many executive orders designed to meet the power "challenge", I got a 20 percent rebate on my electricity bill. At mid-July, 29 percent of the one-third of PG&E's customers who had received their June bill had received the rebate. Pacific Gas and Electric is one of the major utilities in California.

But while the discount was a powerful incentive - particularly for people with high electricity bills, who stood to gain substantial discounts by saving energy - I don't think it accounts on its own for the savings. Even getting lucky with the weather pattern wouldn't account for much of it since the Bay Area is such a tiny part of California. Public education was the key - though I have to say the sense of outrage that California was getting ripped off mightily to feed the greed of Bush's campaign backers didn't hurt the cause.

The first image I remember from the TV, print and radio ads that are part of the California Energy Commission's 'Flex Your Power' campaign was one I thought was hardly going to inspire much saving. It was a dirty sock hanging out of a laundry basket. But the combination of the mundane with the droll California intonation of the voice-over implying that the dirty sock could still be a dirty sock at 7 in the evening without any world-shattering consequences seemingly did the trick. People held off doing their laundry until the evenings when the peak power load periods had passed, thus avoiding power black outs.

The media went into full swing as well, with most local TV bulletins creating a nightly segment especially for stories related to energy-saving ideas and appliances, and consumer stories of how they managed to cut their energy use. Often it could be with something relatively inexpensive like putting shades on west and north-facing windows. Mostly, I suspect, the savings were made by simply turning things off when they weren't being used. And there were many stories about people who'd invested in solar panels as a way of not only reducing dependence on traditional energy sources but of also gaining credit with their energy utility by feeding the excess back into the grid.

Enclosed with every power bill are exhortations to update to more energy-efficient appliances, with substantial cash incentives as part of the offer. City councils send out mailers to their residents with tips and information about what is available locally. Retailers feature specials on appliances and gadgets like controllers that you plug into your power outlet before plugging in your refrigerator - energy hog supreme - to make the way even old fridges operate more efficient.

PG&E has its own ad campaign as well, and one of my favourite TV ads has slightly sinister music as a guy gets out of bed in the morning, throws back the curtains and sees written on his window in red "You're losing energy here" with arrows pointing at the spaces around the window. Picking up his newspaper from outside the front door he finds a note on his doormat saying he needs a weather strip at the bottom of his door. Opening the garage door he steps outside into the packages of ceiling insulation stacked up outside, as his neighbour, like a shark in the water, slowly drives out of his own driveway just on the other side of the hedge. "Morning Jim," he says. "Bob," says our perplexed hero. Bob, of course, has a PG&E logo on his cap.

I guess it remains to be seen if this all will have any lasting effect on the way energy is created and used here in California. Are the savings illusory? In May, power usage was down only 2 percent despite all the effort that had already been going into encouraging people to save - though adjustments for weather and for growth put the figure at 11 percent. The main emphasis in the media has been on the positive stories with a good sprinkling of fun where it could be had.

In keeping with Gray Davis' assertion that "California is the place where intellect, invention and imagination come together" and his commitment to using the internet as a major delivery vehicle for government information, there are many excellent websites linked to the California Energy Commission's home page at The Energy Efficiency and Demand Reduction Program has a database that "links you to a wide range of rebates offered by utilities and state agencies to help you cut your electricity use." The Consumer Energy Center is a source of consumer information on energy effiency - for all seasons.

But to tell the truth, the biggest kick I've thus far got out of my efforts at energy conservation was seeing "20 -" in the newly created line on my power bill: "Percent Change". It's nice to have a personal goal to aim for, and even nicer to be rewarded for achieving it. Even if it's only there by virtue (or vice) of an executive order.

Lea Barker
Saturday, 18 August 2001

NOTE: According to Right Side Management's reply to my email inquiry, which I didn't get till after sending last week's story, the members of Chris Botti's band are: Chris Botti, trumpet; Harvey Jones, keyboards; Jon Ossman, bass; Marc Shulman, guitar; and Karen Teperberg, drums.

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