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Energy Crisis Spurs Demand

by Andy Dworkin
The Oregonian, February 21, 2001

Retailers say consumers are stockpiling energy-saving items
such as fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats and insulation

You can see the proof that Northwest residents are taking the energy crunch seriously in the light bulb aisle of your local hardware store.

You can see the proof, that is, unless shoppers have already cleaned out the compact fluorescent bulbs -- the low-energy lights that have become the hot consumer item this winter.

"It's been a challenge to keep us supplied," said Fred Meyer spokesman Rob Boley. "We've got two main suppliers that have been working hard to keep us in stock."

Compact fluorescent bulbs are just one of many energy-saving items consumers are snapping up now that the region's looming energy shortage has pushed up electricity costs and brought government pleas to conserve power. Other hot items include insulation, thermostats, timers for lights and water heaters, and energy-efficient appliances.

Many of the products are more expensive than their more energy-hungry counterparts. But the power crisis, financial incentives and technological improvements to energy-efficient goods have made them newly popular.

No item illustrates this better than compact fluorescent bulbs: They cost much more than incandescent bulbs -- about $10 to $20 each. But they can last 10 times longer, up to 10,000 hours under ideal conditions. And they use only a quarter of the power: A 15-watt compact fluorescent bulb offers as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb.

So after the initial investment, the bulb usually pays for itself over time through lower electric bills, said D.J. Junkin, manager of Pacific Lamp Wholesale in Beaverton. Junkin's store has seen sales of compact fluorescent bulbs increase about 60 percent this year, while sales of fluorescent lighting fixtures to businesses have increased an estimated 20 percent, he said.

The phenomenon stretches far beyond the Portland area, added Tom Taylor, who manages the eight-state Northwest division of the Home Depot home-products chain. The division has seen its biggest bulb sales increases in its 11 Oregon and 19 Washington stores, he said.

"But we've seen an increase in demand as far across as Colorado," he added. Consumers "are not coming in and buying one at a time. They're coming in and buying enough to do a living space. . . . We're buying everything we can get from our suppliers."

That keeps the fluorescent lights burning all night long at Lights of America, a fluorescent light manufacturer in Walnut, Calif., east of Los Angeles. Demand for the company's bulbs is running 15 to 20 times ahead of the normal year, said Brian Halliwell, vice president of marketing and sales at the 1,200-worker company.

"Right now, to be honest, there's not enough supply on the planet," Halliwell said. "It appears to us that the 'to do' list everyone keeps has on it, 'To do: replace inefficient incandescent bulbs.' "

To keep up with demand, Halliwell said his company's manufacturing plant is running three eight-hour shifts instead of one. He expects work to continue at that pace for at least 18 months, when some new electric generators are scheduled to come on line.

Other retailers also see signs that the conservation trend is durable. Taylor said Home Depot has received calls from "several power companies throughout the Northwest" wanting to do joint mailings promoting energy-efficient products in the coming months. And he said consumers are buying bigger-ticket items, such as home insulation, that indicate Northwest residents are making a serious commitment to conserve.

Local appliance dealers also have seen an increase in sales of energy-efficient items.

"We're noticing a lot of sales of front-end dishwashers, which are the energy-saving kind," said Dave Peters, general manager of George Smith Appliance Warehouse in Tigard, Gresham and Portland.

The generally higher price put off many consumers in the past, but Peters said more customers are asking about them. He also has trained salespeople to discuss state tax credits for homeowners who buy energy-efficient appliances and to explain that the bigger initial investment often pays off in the long run.

Andy Hilger, sales manager at George Morlan Plumbing Service and Supply in Tigard, is also seeing an increase in requests for energy-efficient water heaters and low-flow shower heads.

And there has been a notable increase in the number of customers asking about wood-fired and pellet-fired stoves at Ludeman's Fireplace and Patio Shop in Beaverton, said owner Martin Ludeman.

But he noted that the power crunch can hurt sales of energy-intensive products just as easily as it helps sales of items that ease electric bills.

"I've got a Christmas department, and I'm trying to figure out how many Christmas lights to order for next year," Ludeman said. With no quick end in sight to the electric crunch, he said, "I think maybe I'll be conservative."

Andy Dworkin, Oregonian staff
Energy Crisis Spurs Demand
The Oregonian, February 21, 2001

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