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Planting bulbs

The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to energy, there's talk and then there's action. The talk is often right on target - promote conservation, alternative energy sources and a cleaner environment. But what happens when people actually start doing something about it?

Unfortunately, you can end up with a light bulb brouhaha.

In Western Maryland, the president of Allegheny Power, the region's primary utility, had to apologize to his customers for sending them two energy-saving light bulbs.

Turns out people didn't like getting billed for unsolicited light bulbs, and now the company will refund their money. Yet if anyone on the receiving end simply screwed in one of those bulbs, it would pay for the $11.52 billing in a little over a year - and save the "victim" another $50 or so in electricity costs over another six years.

That's a great deal. Pay a little now, get back many times as much in the long term. We should all be so victimized. Critics complain, however, that it's more sensible to promote the use of compact fluorescents and not necessarily force them on consumers.

Fair enough. But such programs typically cost more in the long run. Advertising and marketing, discounting, rebates, all such expenditures are billed to consumers, too (it's the only way regulated utilities can recover costs), but they don't necessarily get as many people to screw in a light bulb.

A bulb in the hand, in other words, might actually get used.

Baltimore Gas and Electric went the optional route, offering free and discounted light bulbs at selected locations. That drew criticism, too, because all BGE customers pay for the service but don't necessarily end up with a bulb. Naturally, the naysayers ignored the fact that everyone saves when anyone conserves - it can help lower prices and ensure there's enough power to go around.

All of which can only make one wonder if Gov. Martin O'Malley's program, unveiled this week - an ambitious attempt to reduce the state's energy consumption by 15 percent in 15 years - has much chance of success. After all, replacing light bulbs is the easy part. The O'Malley plan would create a strategic energy investment fund to promote more-efficient alternatives and expand the generation of renewable power. All of this sounds good, but it's not going to immediately lower utility bills. In fact, some components may - just like the light bulbs - cost consumers a little more in the short run in order for them to come out far ahead in the long term.

Nevertheless, such strategic planning is crucial. Maryland's energy problem is far more serious than 2006's BGE rate increase. Cheap power, particularly the kind that has pumped so much polluting carbon into the air, is gone forever. The state faces potential power shortages if the needed steps aren't taken soon. Should the governor's efforts fail, consumers will likely long for the days when a modest surcharge on their utility bills was considered a vexing problem.

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