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Renewing the Push for Smart Energy Use

Opinion Column for the San Francisco Chronicle
July 28, 2006
By Jim Rogers, President and CEO, Duke Energy,
and Diane Munns, President, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners

Amid a record heat wave, Californians have coped with Stage-2 power alerts while overall U.S. demand for electricity reached all-time record levels.

With such a precarious power supply-and-demand scenario as a backdrop, an unlikely group utilities, government officials, environmentalists and consumer advocates, among others will unveil the next big idea Monday in San Francisco to help meet our nation's energy challenges.

It's not exactly "wow" technology, such as Apple's iPod. But it will require the same type of ingenuity that enables thousands of songs to be stored on something smaller than a deck of cards. Like the iPod, it must capture the imagination of consumers.

What we're talking about is good, old-fashioned energy savings, dressed up for the 21st century. OK, that's really not a new idea. It's the collaborative approach to advancing innovative solutions and the level of commitment to making this effort stick, state by state, across the country that's so big.

This National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency is a strategy spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to help stanch peak- energy demand in this country and to put American consumers on a true energy- independence track.

Despite rising prices, most Americans aren't saving energy. Let's face it, even if electric utilities, states and others promote more efficiency, until saving energy becomes as ubiquitous as "Googling," we simply won't be successful. Our action plan is meant to jump-start a nationwide effort to turn that trend around.

After all, who hasn't walked into a store in the summer, to be greeted by air so frigid you run searching for the sweater aisle? How many hotel conference rooms have frost forming on the chandeliers in summer, or feel like saunas in the winter? As consumers, we sprint for the hottest, but not necessarily the wisest, energy-consuming devices, from plasma TVs to computers that are always on.

The action plan recognizes that we need the right tools to consume energy more wisely. How about an electric grid that tells a utility how much power each customer is using while also informing consumers which appliances are gobbling the most electrons? In Europe, heating, cooling and lighting are activated in hotel rooms when a customer's key card opens the door. Why can't we do that here?

Can we generate enough of a "wow" factor about saving energy that consumers will seek out businesses that promise to use less energy? Would it inspire citizens if cities were to challenge businesses and themselves to use less energy by committing to save 20 to 30 percent more each year? Wouldn't state-of-the-art traffic lights that move cars and trucks through cities more smoothly reducing idling and pollution be a boon to energy efficiency and the environment? Shouldn't states and towns reward builders for installing superior energy-saving technology in homes and businesses?

While we wrestle with these questions and search for solutions, the reality is we can't continue devouring electricity and natural gas like the creature in a game of PacMan.

Consumers need signals and tools to encourage energy savings now in order to avoid the future cost of adding a significant number of new power plants. Electric utilities and state leaders must work together to make saving electricity as profitable as selling electrons and building power plants. State and federal governments must support utility investments in energy-wise transmission grids and technology advancements that will help move the country to extreme energy savings.

As energy leaders, we plan to use the action plan as the springboard for further nationwide efforts to deliver true energy savings.

When we bring energy efficiency and conservation to the forefront as a realistic option, not only when temperatures hit triple digits and the electric system is taxed to the brink, but 365 days out of the year, we will be on our way to more sustainable energy use.

Diane Munns is president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and a member of the Iowa Utilities Board. Jim Rogers is president and chief executive officer of Duke Energy. Munns and Rogers co-chaired the EPA and DOE sponsored effort to develop the National Action Plan on Energy Efficiency.

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