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Fear motivates conserving energy

During the West Coast energy crisis of 2000 and 2001, utilities found that fear was the primary motivator for energy conservation, fear of being suddenly left in the dark by an unexpected blackout and fear of being hit with a humongous power bill.

During 2001, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., one of California's largest electric utilities, used advertising and rebates to encourage conservation. Customers who reduced energy consumption by 20 percent for a month received a 20 percent discount on power rates for the following month.

But ultimately it was fear of blackouts that proved to be the primary motivator to conserve energy.

"Fear of the unknown -'Am I going to be the next block to not have lights?' - that was the primary motivator," said Christy Dennis, a Pacific Gas & Electric spokeswoman in San Francisco. When the utility put out an alert that blackouts were imminent, consumers and businesses responded by immediately cutting back power use.

But Dennis said the utility learned not to issue alerts when blackouts were not imminent.

"It was like crying wolf," she said. "People got complacent."

In the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma Power used a club to get people to conserve.

The Washington municipal utility added a 50 percent surcharge to electric rates from December 2000 to September 2001.

"People stopped using electricity big time," said Sue Veseth, a spokeswoman for Tacoma Power.

The surcharge reduced consumption an average of 12 percent while it was in place.

Although Arizona utilities don't have surcharges, they do charge more for electricity used during periods of peak demand than during off hours. At Salt River Project, electricity used Monday through Friday from 1 to 8 p.m. costs three times more than power used during non-peak periods.

Both Salt River Project and APS attribute the off-peak and on-peak rates for substantial energy savings.

Neither utility is considering surcharges to encourage more conservation.

The utilities also work with builders to produce energy-efficient homes and have education programs that promote conservation.

They used to offer incentives to consumers and small businesses that bought energy-efficient appliances.

Now, most of that money is being used to reimburse customers who install grid-connected solar energy systems.

APS customers who install grid-connected solar systems on their homes or businesses may qualify for an incentive payment equal to 50 percent of the system cost or $4 per watt, whichever is less.

The payments, distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, are limited to an aggregate total of $2 million per year.

The Arizona Corporation Commission is considering shifting some of the solar rebate funds back to a pool that could be used for energy-efficient appliance refunds.

Pacific Gas & Electric has given away $10 million in such rebates this year.

When California's energy crisis subsided in 2002, consumers who conserved thousands of megawatts of electricity in 2001 gradually slipped back into their old consumption habits.

In northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric has renewed its efforts to encourage conservation through rebates and education programs.

"We're not out of the woods. We may never be," Dennis said.

She likened the learning curve for electricity conservation to garbage recycling.

"It took about 10 years, but now most people practice some sort of recycling," she said. "We're only a few years into seriously promoting conservation of electricity."

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