California Governor Enlists McDonald’s to Get Out Conservation Message

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San Jose Mercury News

 Gov. Gray Davis recently urged Californians to cut their energy consumption by 7 percent. But now he really means it.

The call to conserve got serious this week, with a $ 404-million state campaign that gets down to the nitty gritty: Wash those dirty socks during off-peak hours to help avoid rolling blackouts. Buy energy-efficient appliances and products. And turn off those lights!

The campaign expands some of the state’s ongoing conservation programs and brings new pressure against retail businesses such as shopping malls and car dealerships, which must cut back on after-hours outdoor lighting by March 15 or face penalties of up to $ 1,000 per infraction.

For marketing help, the state enlisted the McDonald’s Corp., which operates 1,150 restaurants across the state. On Friday, franchises began placing paper liners that include the state’s new “Flex Your Power” message alongside a “Double Puzzle Energy Game” on all trays. Four million paper liners in English and Spanish have been printed, and energy messages will be printed on paper bags for the fast food chain’s drive-through customers.

On Friday, many consumers said they already do a great deal to curb their use of electricity, and the fear of further rate hikes has inspired them to do even more. But others insist that conservation alone is not the answer, and expressed frustration that much of the burden — use less energy, pay more for it — has fallen squarely on their shoulders.

“If we can build all of these prisons in California, then we can build more power plants,” said Ezrick Warren, 36, as he ate at a McDonald’s in Fremont. Warren hadn’t noticed the new energy messages on his tray, which was littered with french fries and barbecue sauce.

“We have to buy all of our electricity from somewhere else. It’s like, if you had your own gas station, would you ever go out and buy gas someplace else?”

Others reserved their ire for larger corporations that lobbied in favor of the 1996 deregulation package in the first place.

Jean Faust lives in Fremont, where Brett, her 10-year-old-son, has become the family’s Energy Czar. Brett regularly turns off lights, closes doors to rooms that are not being used and chastises his parents on what he feels is any wasteful behavior. The family has gotten used to shivering because they’ve turned down the thermostat to 64 degrees.

But Faust thinks Davis’ plan falls short.

“What really gets me mad is the CEO of Intel saying either do something or we’re leaving the state,” Faust said. “Excuse me. Who were the ones that were really lobbying Pete Wilson a couple of years ago for deregulation?”

Some local companies were worried when they first heard about Davis’ order, and thought they were being commanded to cut lights off while their stores were still open. When they learned the details, many were relieved, but still not thrilled about the situation.

“We’re concerned,” said Kevin Carpenter, director of sales at Capital Toyota in San Jose. “It’s becoming like a police state.”

For consumers, more funds would be added to a rebate program, which provides up to $ 75 to each consumer who buys certain energy-efficient appliances. Most of the new money targeted for the conservation program would go toward public-education messages and business incentive programs.

Davis has earmarked $ 225 million for businesses in a state-sponsored conservation program. That money would expand the existing program and help participants adopt more energy-efficient materials and equipment. It would also assist companies in installing software that automatically reduces their energy use during peak periods. Companies would apply for rebates, which would vary in amount depending on the size and scope of their project.

The state hopes to get the money for that program approved, the contracts bid out and the work done by Sept. 21 — faster than such projects usually take.

Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association, said many of his members are relieved by the exterior lighting order. The organization’s 55 member companies account for 60 percent of the retail activity in the state.

Until now, companies that wanted to conserve energy worried they would be at a disadvantage when competitors kept the lights on and maintained a flashy image. If these proposals work as planned, the playing field will be level.

Better for planning

Plus, many businesses that have their lighting systems controlled by a computer will now be able to plan better, instead of bracing for rolling blackouts that often hit with no warning.

“We can find ways to reduce power usage as long as it’s predictable,” Dombrowski said. “If you tell us you want us to reduce power use from noon to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we can program ways to do that. What I can’t do is call 200 stores and reconfigure them in one hour.”

The Great Mall of the Bay Area in Milpitas has already reacted to Davis’ order. Lights were dimmer during business hours Friday, and were to be shut off altogether an hour after the mall closes instead of the usual two.

In Santa Clara, Paramount’s Great America theme park has dimmed its lights, and spokeswoman Susan Salzer said the park may consider shutting some rides during peak energy-use periods.

But while nearly everyone agrees that a massive conservation message can do no harm, consumer groups roundly blasted Davis’ plan as little more than “blame and punish the victim.”

And they predicted that talk show hosts across the country, for whom California bashing has become a daily delight, have now been provided with fresh material.

The governor is “willing to fine small businesses thousands of dollars, but he won’t stand up to the utility companies and Wall Street,” said Doug Heller, an advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “The jokes will be ‘Davis can’t work his way out of a McDonald’s bag.’ ”

Consumer Watchdog
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