State Backs Energy-Savings Pushby Robert Celaschi
East Bay Business Journal, February 24, 2006
Rising energy prices have given a free marketing boost to any product or service that cuts usage of watts or therms. Solar panels, fans, even cold-water detergents now have added cachet when the gas bill arrives. Governments are weighing in as well, both with the carrot of tax credits and the stick of tighter regulation.
Product developers are watching too, with researchers looking to translate laboratory advances into energy-saving products that people will buy and use.
On the residential side, whole-house fans are some of the most popular items, along with ceiling fans, energy-efficient appliances and lighting controls.
On the commercial side, light-emitting diodes are big. Power-sipping LED units are popular for exit lighting, floor lighting and decorative lighting. One of the newest hot items is under-counter illumination. A big stumbling block at the moment is that LED lights don't count under the California Energy Commission's new Title 24 rules, which require 50 percent of lighting to be fluorescent.
For both new construction and older homes, efficient furnaces are in demand.
"On the furnace side, the heating side, we have seen a dramatic shift in our high-efficiency business," said Jeff Small, general manager of U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors Inc., a wholesaler in San Leandro.
California buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than those in other states, according to a December report by the state Energy Commission. The commission noted that annual per-capita use of electricity has topped out at less than 8,000 kilowatt-hours in California for the past 30 years. Nationwide the figure has been on an upward climb that already has passed 12,000 kilowatt-hours.
The report estimates that the state's electricity use in 2003 was about 15 percent less than it would have been without the cumulative effect of efficiency programs and standards adopted since the commission was created in 1974.
Half of the floor area in California's commercial buildings was built before 1982, the first year California set energy performance standards on new construction. Likewise, more than 8 million of the state's homes and apartment units were built before 1982.
In December 2004 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an order establishing the Green Building Initiative, which commits California to reducing energy use by 20 percent in state-owned buildings by 2015. By 2009, the Energy Commission says, California should establish a benchmarking system for commercial buildings, similar to the Green Building Initiative.
Utilities don't endorse specific products or vendors, but they do have programs that encourage energy efficiency. The state Public Utilities Commission has authorized the four investor-owned utilities in California to spend about $2 billion on those programs in the next three years, targeted mostly at retrofit investments.
Owners of commercial buildings also can get some financial help from the federal government. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed into law this past August, included a new tax deduction for energy-efficient building expenditures. The deduction is limited to $1.80 per square foot of the property, with partial deductions allowed for improvements in interior lighting, hot-water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning. It applies through 2007.
Stiff codes, utility rebates and new tax incentives are fine, "but you need the manufacturers behind it," said Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Center in Davis. "You still have to have the folks who make the toys. Energy savings is not going to happen unless products are sold."
Financially supported by the University of California, the state Energy Commission, major utilities and manufacturers of electrical equipment, the center works on ways to turn laboratory discoveries into energy-saving products that can be put on store shelves.
For example, one of the center's efforts features a computer program that can be put on a chip and installed in a light fixture, so the lights in an office brighten gradually as it gets dark outside.
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