CleanTech: Reefer Madness

By Published On: June 12, 2014

I was not in it for the rebate. California’s appliance recycling efficiency programs offer money to donate old refrigerators to the state program. The theory is that in return consumers guzzle less energy. Utilities give participating consumers $50 for the old appliance. The appliance program is one of the California Public Utilities Commission’s oldest. It’s been in existence for 20 years, according to the commission. With an old freezer in the garage, I took advantage of it. After that experience, I figure the energy savings is minimal at best for the cost of the program. With the big caveat—in half the state. The other half, where cities and suburbs are dense, it makes sense. The half north of San Francisco and Sacramento are still in the state and still in the program(s) for efficiency. But, the land up north is often sparsely populated. Thus, it’s usually a long distance between refrigerator A and refrigerator B. It simply appears that the program is inefficient for the more rural, northern half. For example, when the Pacific Gas & Electric contractor showed up to cart my freezer away, I discovered the operation is based in Sacramento. That’s 300 miles south of where the freezer pick up was. They spent the night in a town that is 60 miles to the north, in order to pick up old refrigerators in the state’s far northwest. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to burn a bunch of gasoline to save some electricity. The most recent data (2010-12) from the commission show there are 25 efficiency programs—from appliances to “work force education.” The appliance program costs ratepayers $54 million/year. According to the data, the utilities saved 158 GWh through recycling old reefers. Of that, PG&E accounted for 107 GWh saved, despite its vast territory. Still, that works out to a cost of about $342/MWh saved statewide. There’s $4 billion being spent on efficiency programs overall at this time, according to the Office of Ratepayer Advocates. There are reams and reams of data and reports being generated that are completely un-understandable—yet cost millions. Check, for instance, the commission-sponsored Navigant report. Why not do something simple like divide the inefficient utility territories geographically on the old appliance program. It should save a bunch of vehicle miles and the resultant greenhouse gas pollution, and apparently be more efficient for ratepayers’ investment.

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