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US: State makes progress in kicking oil habit

While politicians in Washington appear to be making little headway in breaking the nation's addiction to imported oil, California has made some real progress with innovative policies.

Renewable energy sources provide about 12 percent of California's electricity supply, and Republican and Democratic leaders have reached a rare consensus over the need to increase the state's use of solar, wind and hydrogen power, along with a large dose of conservation.

"California is now embarked on the world's most ambitious effort to save electricity and diversify its supply," said Amory Lovins, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, of Snowmass, Colo., which has advised San Francisco in its attempts to diversify the city's power supplies.

State and local initiatives include:

-- Auto emissions: In September, the California Air Resources Board ordered automakers to reduce the global-warming emissions of cars sold in California by 30 percent starting in 2009, which would force cars to increase gas mileage. U.S. auto companies are expected to file suit in federal court after the November election to try to overturn the rule.

-- Hybrid vehicles: A new state law allows hybrid cars rated at more than 45 miles per gallon onto the state's 1,100 miles of highway lanes reserved for cars carrying two or three people during rush hour. The measure effectively includes the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and Honda Insight, but excludes Ford's new Escape hybrid SUV, which fails the 45-mpg benchmark, as well as other models that American automakers are expected to release in the coming years.

-- Hydrogen: In tandem with a Bush administration initiative, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a Hydrogen Highways plan, which foresees hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations across the state by 2010 to help the commercialization of fuel-cell vehicles. However, most experts say hydrogen fuel-cell technology will not be fully ready for mass use until about 2020.

-- Solar: Under a $100 million bond measure passed in 2001, San Francisco subsidizes residential and commercial owners who install solar panels on their roofs. The city already has installed about 675 kilowatts of solar capacity on the Moscone Convention Center, and plans to bring another 225 kilowatts on line at the water pollution control plant in the Bayview District. Statewide, Schwarzenegger launched a "Million Solar Roofs" campaign to increase the number of solar power systems on residential and commercial rooftops. He also signed a bill in September to make it more affordable for 12, 000 homes to install solar power systems.

-- Efficiency: The state's Flex Your Power conservation program, created after the 2001-2002 energy crisis, helps private and municipal utilities, businesses, nonprofits and federal, state and local government offices to adopt more efficient electricity and heating equipment and practices.

-- Investments: State Treasurer Phil Angelides has spearheaded a "Green Wave" initiative for the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Under the program, about $950 million of the funds' investments have been channeled into purchases of stock and private equity in solar, wind and geothermal energy firms.

Despite these advances, there also have been setbacks. Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have accelerated California's transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind, solar or biomass. Current rules require all retail power suppliers to obtain at least 20 percent of their electricity from these new sources by 2017. The vetoed bill would have moved the date to 2010.

The governor also vetoed funding for the California Power Authority, which helps other state agencies conserve energy and install solar panels on their buildings. Schwarzenegger's aides have said he plans to transfer the authority's programs, currently overseen by a four-person board that includes Angelides and two appointees of former Gov. Gray Davis, to agencies completely controlled by Schwarzenegger.

E-mail Robert Collier at

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