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Thinking Creatively About Energy
Santa Barbara News-Press
Our Opinion
April 13, 2001

While Gov. Gray Davis fumbles and fumes, a UCSB dean has come up with an energy-saving scheme that represents precisely the kind of creative - and realistic - thinking we're going to need to get through the worsening electricity squeeze. And his is just one of a number of ideas with the potential to make a real difference that have surfaced locally in recent days.

Back in the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the nation's last major energy crisis, economist Dennis J. Aigner worked on a utility pricing study for Southern California Edison. What he found was that a scheme known as time-of-use pricing could prompt residential customers to make significant cuts in their peak-period electricity use.

These days, Aigner is acting dean of UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, but what he learned on that Edison study is still very much on his mind - so much so that he has begun a one-man lobbying effort aimed at persuading the Public Utilities Commission to require utilities to charge residential users time-of-use rates.

Already mandatory for the biggest commercial customers, time-of-use pricing encourages consumers to change their usage habits by charging them extremely low rates during off hours - and extremely high ones at times of peak demand. For instance, running your washer and dryer in the middle of the afternoon might cost you 40 cents a kilowatt hour, while the bill for doing the same amount of laundry in the evening would be just 2 cents a kilowatt hour.

More old-fashioned common sense than rocket science, the scheme has proven to be remarkably effective. In the old Edison study, which tracked the habits of some 600 consumers over a three-year period, time-of-use pricing wound up reducing power usage nearly 20 percent during the critical peak hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

So far, the PUC has been unwilling to do more than allow utilities to offer voluntary time-of-use programs for residential customers. And while the utilities concede that the approach works, they have been lukewarm about the idea of making it mandatory - in part because this would require them to install new, more expensive meters. But that's just a quibble. As Aigner notes, given the monthly savings they are likely to generate, time-of-use meters would quickly pay for themselves.

So what's the problem? With the prospect of widespread summer blackouts growing more and more likely, state legislators and the PUC should implement the new pricing system before it's too late.

A similarly common-sense - and potentially effective - proposal to ease the energy crunch was suggested last week by Santa Barbara City Councilman Gregg Hart. His idea is to cut local electricity usage by creating a rebate plan under which the city would provide residents with energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs either free or at a discount. The money needed to fund the program - an amount estimated at about $100,000 - could come from the city's utility tax, the proceeds of which are expected to jump dramatically as a result of the coming rate hikes. Best of all, say officials, the program could easily be in place by the summer.

Of course, getting through the summer is just the first step. In order to extricate ourselves from the energy mess, we need to look beyond the next few months. Fortunately, Dean Aigner and his colleagues at UCSB are doing just that. They're currently working to raise an additional $2 million to turn the new home of their environmental management school - a $22 million, four-story building that has been under construction for the past 12 months - into a model for energy efficiency.

Filled with everything from solar-power panels to fuel cells - plus devices that turn off the lights when the daylight is bright enough to illuminate rooms. Bren Hall, as it is called, is expected to be one of the two or three "greenest" buildings in the country, as much as 40 percent more energy efficient than conventional structures. At the same time, however, it is cost-efficient.

Now, if only the folks in Sacramento could learn to think this way.