To many in Congress, the answer to the twin problems of global warming and energy security is inventing revolutionary new energy technologies and building new, cleaner power plants. But there's a faster, cheaper and surer way, and almost no one does it better than California.

In the past 30 years, while Americans on average have nearly doubled their per capita consumption of electricity, Californians have kept their consumption about the same.

It was hardly surprising then Tuesday that the authoritative American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked California at the top of astate-by-state report card on energy efficiency, sharing first with Vermont and Connecticut.

The rest of the top 10 energy-saving states range up the Northwest and Northeast coasts and include Minnesota. Energy experts joke that an energy-efficiency map of the nation looks a lot like a map of the blue states that lean left politically. More accurately, they often are states that historically had less control over their energy and paid higher energy prices, either for heating oil in the Northeast or out-of-state electricity in California.

After those 10, the nonprofit energy-efficiency council found, energy efficiency drops off significantly, with little effort to save energy in the 26 bottom-ranked states where energy has been inexpensive. They arc from the Midwest to the South and back again to the worst-rated state, North Dakota. Because of those states, the council is calling on Congress to write efficiency requirements into federal energy legislation.

"Given the stakes that we as a nation face — global warming and energy security — it's not sufficient to let a few visionary states lead while the rest of the nation lags," said Bill Prindle, ACEEE's deputy director.

Skeptics on the benefits of energy efficiency say California and other efficient states tend to have higher energy costs. But Prindle said those states also tend to have lower bills and greater economic growth.

"It does say that you can have strong energy efficiency and a strong economy," he said. "It's a myth that you often hear repeated that a (low) carbon policy means hurting the economy. Not true."

His organization ranked states across eight criteria, including their spending on rate-payer funded energy efficiency programs, their use of tax incentives, the application of efficient appliance and building standards and their willingness to lead by example, say by building green state offices and purchasing hybrid vehicles for state fleets. California rated highly in almost all categories, though less than perfect for its lack of a tax credit for hybrids and land-use controls to curb sprawl.

The question now, as California shoots for the broadest and steepest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of any state, is whether the state already has dropped the easiest energy waste to shed and whether the job will get much harder now.

"Physically it's harder to extract more and more savings from a diminishing pie," said Rich Brown, an energy scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "You can only push air conditioning and refrigerator efficiencies so far, but I think we're still pretty far away from that threshold still. Eventually we'll get to diminishing returns, but we're not there yet and there always are promising new technologies coming along."

Energy efficiency is an easy case to make in California, partly because it keeps money in the state that otherwise might be spent on out-of-state transmission lines and power plants. From 2004 to 2013, Commissioner Dian Grueneich of the state Public Utilities Commission projects utilities in the state will spend $10 billion on energy efficiency while saving the need for 10 new power plants that would cost roughly $20 billion.

The commission, as a lead state agency for energy efficiency, is taking a hard look at water — an untapped area of energy savings that, between pumping and treatment, accounts for roughly a tenth of the state's electricity use. 

This week and next, the commission is holding workshops to chart next generation energy savings, for example, by promoting construction of "net-zero energy" buildings that use solar cells and other technologies to pull little or no energy off the grid.

Grueneich said she wants to move fast on buildings because they account for 40 percent of the state's electricity use and because she sees global warming as a pressing problem.

"So we have to work harder and faster at how we do things than we ever have before because we don't have the luxury of that much time. Frankly I'm not looking to the past for what's possible but to what we need to do 10 years out," she said.

Go to http://www.aceee.org/pubs/e075.htm see the the state energy efficiency scorecard for 2006 from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6458.