It’s a mystery: Stockton’s growing energy appetite

To the extent that this economically distressed city can, Stockton has put a concerted effort for several years now into sealing up old, drafty homes and decreasing energy demand.

But demand hasn’t gone down. It hasn’t even remained steady.

It’s gone up.

This graph was the subject of some consternation at today’s Climate Action Plan Advisory Committee meeting.

After all, it portrays the exact opposite of what the committee has been attempting to accomplish for close to six years now.

The graph, supplied by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., shows Stockton’s total community energy usage from 2005 through 2012, including both residential and nonresidential, and electricity and natural gas.

Overall, energy usage is up 14.6 percent since 2005.

Much of the increase appears to be from business and commercial sources, which, given the poor economy during the past seven years, seems a mystery unto itself.

But demand appears to be up in our homes, as well — separate graphs show a 1.2 percent increase in average monthly electricity usage for single-family homes, and an 8.5 percent increase in natural gas usage. (Multi-family dwellings registered decreases in both of those categories.)

This isn’t good news.

Our city hasn’t grown much during this time period. If anything, the foreclosure crisis had the opposite effect, leaving us with thousands of vacant homes that had zero energy demand.

And yet, through it all, our energy appetite has grown.

Even those homes that were built, mostly in 2005 and 2006, can be safely described as some of our newest and therefore most energy-efficient homes, and would naturally have less impact on our overall energy consumption than the 85,000 homes that were built before 2002.

So what could possibly explain the increase in demand?

The committee discussed a number of possibilities. There’s the weather, of course, which can create dramatic shifts in energy demand on a year to year basis. Longer and hotter summers attributed to climate change could cause spikes in energy use. (Though most recently, Stockton has been enjoying relatively cool summers.)

We also live in an age with more and more electronic devices that seem always to be plugged in. iPhones. iPads. iPods. iWhatevers. Satellite TV controllers. We could go on. It’s the “phantom load” that can drive up your utility bill.

There is a behavioral theory, too. Let’s say you go out and replace every light bulb in your house with energy-efficient CFLs. Would you be as vigilant about turning the lights off when you leave the room? Would you become complacent knowing that you’ve “done the right thing,” subconsciously assuming that the bulbs’ high-efficiency rating cancels out inherent human laziness?

Finally, while newer homes are indeed more tightly sealed and equipped with more energy-thrifty devices, they tend to be larger too. Bigger homes take more energy to heat or cool. So perhaps, by building large, we’ve canceling out some of the benefits of building smart.

These are all just theories.

“Something is occurring within the city that’s sort of working contrary to our goals,” said David Nelson, a committee member and vice president of A.G. Spanos Cos.

Nelson also drew the committee’s attention to PG&E’s estimate of Stockton’s total greenhouse gas emissions resulting from energy usage.

That number: 944,267 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

According to Nelson, the city’s draft Climate Action Plan pegs “business as usual” 2020 greenhouse gas emissions at somewhere around 911,000 metric tons.

That’s a “gigantic” difference, he said, if indeed it’s fair to compare those numbers.

“It’s a little alarming that, here in 2012, we’ve already blown through where we thought we would be in 2020 under business as usual,” Nelson said.

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  • Blog Author

    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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