For Palo Alto, it's the watts that count
City focuses on energy efficiency to save costs, environment
Last week, when Palo Alto utilities officials offered residents $8 dimmable, energy-efficient light bulbs — normally priced at $38 — they had no idea they'd unleash an L.E.D. craze.
Customers snapped up all 2,000 Light Emitting Diode (L.E.D.) bulbs within two days — a level of demand that utility officials are calling "overwhelming" and "unprecedented."
The city's previous rebate efforts for light bulbs typically attracted a few hundred participants over periods of several weeks or months.
To feed the demand, the department has ordered 1,000 more bulbs and expects them to hit local hardware stores in about a month, said Joyce Kinnear, marketing manager at the Utilities Department. The lights are limited to one per customer.
The L.E.D. program is part of the city's growing effort to promote local energy savings as the most direct path to a greener tomorrow.
"We consider energy efficiency to be the cheapest, best resource we have, and we certainly want to invest in acquiring that resource," Jane Ratchye, the Utility Department's assistant director for resource management, said at an April 6 meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.
The full council is planning to adopt a "Ten-Year Energy-Efficiency Plan" on Monday night — a plan that sets a goal of reducing the city's use of electricity by 7.2 percent by 2020 through energy-efficiency programs. The city's Utilities Advisory Commission and the Finance Committee have already unanimously approved the proposal.
The plan targets everything from building materials and old refrigerators to streetlights and data centers.
The council last adopted a long-term energy-efficiency plan in 2007, at which time the council set a goal of saving 3.5 percent by 2016. The city has significantly surpassed its annual goal in every year since then, according to a recent Utilities Department report.
In fiscal year 2009, the city reduced its electricity load by 0.47 percent, far more than the plan's hoped-for 0.28 percent. In fiscal year 2010, the city is projected to save 0.5 percent of its electricity load, far beyond the 0.35 percent called for in the plan.
Palo Alto already offers a wide range of energy-efficiency programs for residents, small businesses and large companies. These include:
-Rebates totaling 50 percent of the cost of switching to energy-efficient equipment from standard equipment.
-Rebates of up to $900 for builders who exceed the requirements of the city's Green Building ordinance.
-A free in-home energy audit conducted by Acterra, a local nonprofit organization focused on environmental education and conservation.
-A $35 rebate to customers who recycle their old refrigerators.
-Rebates for energy-efficient lighting systems, chillers, boilers and HVAC (heating and air) units.
Refrigerators are far and away the most cost-effective appliances for customers to replace, Kinnear said. Utilities staff estimated that an old refrigerator uses about 1,500 kilowatts per year, while a new energy-efficient refrigerator only uses about 400 kilowatts. A customer who dumps an old fridge for a new, efficient one could cut energy expenditures from about $180 to $48 a year, Ratchye estimated.
While people like getting money back, or paying less, utility companies don't necessarily see benefits when they give away products. Kinnear noted that customers who get free energy-efficient appliances don't always use these items.
"Even if you give away items such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), that doesn't necessarily mean that people will install them," Kinnear said. "PG&E has given away millions of CFLs that are now available on eBay or sitting in people's closets.
"If people don't pay for an item, they don't value it as much."