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Mike Thompson
"The beauty of it is that it helps to prevent blackouts"
 real 28k

Randi Kinman
"People have seen their bills going up by 20, 30, 40%"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK
Californians look for energy alternatives
Mike Thompson
Mike Thompson checks his Power Conversion Center
By Maggie Shiels in Los Angeles

From the outside, Mike Thompson's garage looks like any of the other garages lining his suburban street in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But inside, amidst the usual clutter, lives the "Power Conversion Center", which is connected to 24 solar panels mounted on the roof of his ranch-style home.

The panels, which can hardly be seen from the ground, convert sunlight into electricity.

In California, electricity is a precious commodity in a state caught in the grip of an energy crisis that has been described as the worst in over 30 years.
Mike Thompson and his daughter
Thompson and his daughter plug in the electric car every night

Recent unprecedented blackouts from one end of the state to the other were a portentous signal of what lies ahead for Californians.

Summer, the peak period of demand for electricity, is fast approaching - and concern is growing rapidly.

Helping the state

But Governor Gray Davis is banking on people like Mike Thompson to help bail the state out of its troubles.

While he spends an estimated $45m a day keeping the lights switched on, the governor is calling on everyone to conserve at least 10% of the power they normally use.

To that end, a series of radio and TV adverts have been played constantly urging consumers to do their bit to keep the lights on in one of America's wealthiest states.

Back at Mike's garage, his electric car fights for pride of place. He plugs it in overnight to juice it up for work in the morning, and says he saves over $30 a week not having to buy gas.

Gray Davis
Governor Davis is funding more electricity purchases
In all, Mike estimates his conservation methods will actually mean he will have no power bill to pay at the end of the year because he feeds excess electricity back into the grid.

"The beauty is that since I've got it inter-connected with the electricity grid, it helps prevent power blackouts.

"During the day, I pump back four or five kilowatts, which is enough to support my house and three or four other houses - and at night I take electricity out of the grid to charge the car, when nobody knows what to do with it."

He claims the initial $30,000 outlay will be recouped in seven to ten years.

Changing attitudes

Mike is not alone in trying to make a difference. Real Goods near San Jose is a company that for 20 years has been preaching the conservation message to a largely uninterested public.

Store manager Randi Kinman believes there has been a recent change of heart simply because of soaring utility bills.

An operator at the California Independent System Operator
California's energy agency has warned of an emergency
"Once someone is going to be without electricity off and on throughout the year, and once they've seen their bills go up by 20, 30, 40%, it's not hard to convince them the right thing to do," she said.

"One of our goals is to help take those utility bills and drop them by 15 to 20% - very easily and without doing a lot of work."

The store's biggest seller has been energy efficient light-bulbs which Randi says she sells by the truckload.

"Statistics show that if every household were to take four incandescent light bulbs and switch them to compact fluorescent light bulbs, we would reduce our consumption in households to the point where we could eliminate 17 power plants in the state of California," Randi claims.

Pilot project

Over at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, efforts are underway to help businesses do their bit.

In Silicon Valley, the high tech industry is the biggest consumer of energy, and their need for reliable power has prompted them to co-sponsor a programme called Silicon Valley Blackout Busters.

Bill Smith
Bill Smith heads the Silicon Valley Blackout Busters
The pilot project means installing equipment to monitor power usage as it is used in real-time. This enables the state to ask a company to cut back its power consumption voluntarily, and measure accurately how much they are curtailing power.

The programme's co-ordinator Bill Smith claims it is aimed at weathering the "perfect storm that has hit California", reducing energy consumption by focusing on heating, lighting and ventilation.

Even one of California's favourite sons, "Dirty Harry", sees the benefits of conserving power.

Hidden on the roof of Clint Eastwood's spectacular Tehama Golf and Country Club near Monterey are 242 photovoltaic panels that provide enough solar energy to power the clubhouse, charge all the golf carts and still send thousands of kilowatt-hours to the grid.

There's little doubt that having people like Clint Eastwood taking part in the conservation game is something that is bound to make Governor Davis' day a lot brighter.

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See also:

20 Mar 01 | Americas
California ends power cuts
11 Feb 01 | Business
UK generator eyes California move
02 Feb 01 | Americas
California approves power plan
23 Jan 01 | Business
California may issue crisis bonds
18 Jan 01 | Americas
California blackout: Why it happened
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