Suggested date of release:
after October 1, 1999
Claudia Chandler (916) 654-4989
Media and Public Communications Office
1,044 words
(First article in the 3-part series for October)

California Homes Use Less Energy Than Ever

October is Energy Awareness Month.

After facing the highest gasoline prices in the nation this year, many unhappy Californians may figure they have become too aware of energy, thank you very much. But as we head toward winter and the higher utility bills that cold weather brings, we should look at the good energy news: new homes built in California use less energy than ever before. And that translates to more money in the homeowner's pocket.

Here's an example. Did you know that, according to figures from the California Energy Commission, an average three-bedroom California home - one built before 1977 and never improved - can cost as much as $2700 a year to heat and cool?

On the other hand, heating and air conditioning bills for the same 1700-square-foot house, built to today's energy standards, should run about $700 a year. That's $2,000 a year that the homeowner isn't paying to his utility company, a savings of nearly 75 percent!

Such substantial savings are the result of improved methods of construction and new products that make newly built homes more energy efficient and comfortable than pre-1977 houses. That was the year the Energy Commission, California's energy planning agency, introduced the first Energy Efficiency Building Standards.

The regulations, known as Title 24, required new home construction and remodeling to meet certain minimum standards in order to reduce energy waste.

In a state as diverse as California, developing uniform standards was not an easy task. Living conditions vary from Imperial County summers where the temperature can reach 118 degrees or more, to snowy, below-zero winters in places like Lake Tahoe.

The Commission's solution was to divide the state into 16 different climate zones, and to customize the regulations to fit different conditions. Substantial energy savings were achieved by the simple act of requiring insulation in the walls, floors and ceilings of all new construction. More efficient lighting, improved windows and less-drafty building designs helped to cut energy use further.

Advances in household appliances, mandated by the Energy Commission at the same time as building standards, saved even more energy. California's tough new energy efficiency standards applied to appliances such as water heaters, heating systems, air conditioners and refrigerators. The regulations proved to be so successful they were eventually adopted on the national level.

By comparing old and new heating systems, you can see how dramatic the improvements in appliance efficiency have been. Twenty years ago, most natural-gas-fired furnaces had efficiency ratings of between 50 to 60 percent. Today you can buy natural-gas fired heating systems that are 97 percent efficient. That means that 97 percent of the fuel used by the furnace can actually reach your home as heat. By replacing an outdated furnace with one of the most efficient models, you can cut your natural gas use nearly in half!

Refrigerators have become much more efficient as well. The amount of electricity used to run one 1977 model refrigerator can power three new 1999 models.

Working together, our State's building and appliance standards have produced impressive results. Since they went into effect, Californians have saved an estimated $16 billion in energy costs.

The regulations have produced major benefits for the State as well. For much of the past two decades, California, with the seventh largest economy on earth, grew by more than 850,000 people per year. (That's like adding the total population of Montana to our state, every year for nearly 20 years!) By cutting waste and making more efficient use of energy, however, California kept up with increasing electricity demand from its growing population. It's estimated that, if it weren't for the energy savings achieved by building and appliance standards, California would have needed to build an additional seven 700-megawatt power plants.

But electricity isn't the only energy source to benefit from increased efficiency. Savings in residential natural gas use are no less dramatic. Although the State's population has grown 53 percent since 1975, total residential natural gas use has declined 28 percent, more than offsetting the increase in gas use that would have occurred otherwise.

California's energy use per capita is the third lowest in the nation, but there is still more that can be done. Today's savings have been achieved by using minimum energy efficiency standards. However, it's possible to exceed the minimum requirements to save even more on your utility bill and increase the comfort of your home.

Remember that average, pre-1977 house we mentioned that could cost as much as $2,700 a year to heat and cool? By using already-existing technology to go beyond the standards, that home can be built so that its heating and cooling costs are reduced to around $250 a year!

The story gets even better. New building products and advanced construction methods are creating more highly insulated walls and ceilings that will lower that energy expense even more.

"Smart windows" are being developed that will adapt to changing weather conditions. One type of window, not yet on the market, will use "electrochromic" technology to transform window glass from clear to color-tinted. The tinting occurs when a small electric charge is applied, and the amount of tinting is fully controllable. By responding to varying temperature and lighting conditions throughout the day, the windows can reduce the cost of air conditioning.

Appliances are becoming "smarter," as well. Now entering the market are more efficient kitchen appliances that can even "communicate" with each other through standard electrical wiring, monitoring how much total power is being used in the home and cutting their energy consumption if there is a potential circuit overload.

Best of all, technology is on the market now that could turn your home into an energy provider, not an energy user. Flexible roof shingles with tiny solar panels on them are already being installed on some houses, for example. During the day they use sunlight to generate electricity. If they produce more power than the house is using at the time, the excess electricity is fed into the electrical power grid - the power lines connected to your home. The energy produced is credited to the homeowner's account and subtracted from the amount you buy from the power company when the sun is not shining.

All in all, the outlook makes October - Energy Awareness Month - something to celebrate.

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This article is based on the California Energy Commission's Home Energy Guide, to be published early in 2000.

You can find additional information about energy in California on the Energy Commission's Web Site at www.energy.ca.gov.

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