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The leader in energy-saving? California

East Coasters may not like to admit it, but California has been the leader in the energy-saving race since the starter gun fired over long gas pump lines in the 1970s.

Using a computer model developed at the Center for Building Science at the University of California-Berkeley, it measured the energy performance of buildings. The state set stricter standards both for buildings and for appliances – from air conditioners to heaters to refrigerators. It “decoupled” utilities' sales and their profits by allowing rate increases that helped customers cut energy use, an all-around winner since consumers realized energy savings which more than offset the rate increases.

Sure, it was a regulatory approach, but one that bet the future on California's famous talent for waves of innovation. Widely imitated by other states, the policy succeeded, so much so that according to Douglas Henton of Collaborative Economics, a Silicon Valley consulting firm, per capita use of electricity has been flat or declining for 25 years.

Californians pay dearly for power, but as a proportion of the state economy they use half the electricity per capita than the nation as a whole does.

Henton says that record is not mere moral virtue. Energy efficiency amounts to $24 billion a year that Californians can spend or invest in other things, because they're not buying more electricity. They have avoided the expense of 15 to 20 additional power plants.

Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson