This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.


Big retailers join forces in an effort to fight labour abuses

Big retailers join forces in an effort to fight labour abuses

By Jonathan Birchall in New York and Elizabeth Rigby in Paris

Published: January 11 2007 02:00 | Last updated: January 11 2007 02:00

The world's largest retailers have for the first time agreed on a unified set of workplace standards aimed at eliminating problems such as child labour and unpaid wages in their vast global supply chains.

Wal-Mart, Tesco, Carrefour and Metro - the world's four largest supermarket chains with more than $500bn (£258bn) in aggregate annual sales - have been working with Migros, the largest Swiss retailer, to develop a draft code of standards called the Global Social Compliance Programme.

China failed last year to meet its target for improved energy efficiency, a senior official said, underlining the challenge faced by Beijing in balancing the need for fast economic growth with higher environmental standards.

China fails to hit target for saving energy

By Richard McGregor in Beijing

Published: January 11 2007 00:32 | Last updated: January 11 2007 00:32

China failed last year to meet its target for improved energy efficiency, a senior official said, underlining the challenge faced by Beijing in balancing the need for fast economic growth with higher environmental standards.

The target, one of only two numerical benchmarks laid down in the latest five-year economic plan launched last March, called on provinces to cut energy use per unit of output by 4 per cent a year until 2010.

Pan Yue, vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), said on the regulator's website that the target for cutting energy use and also emissions had not been met.

"2006 has been the bleakest year for China's environmental situation," Mr Pan said. "The target laid down by the State Council at the start of last year, to cut energy consumption by 4 per cent and pollution emissions by 2 per cent, has not been achieved."

Central government has yet to announce formally the figures for 2006 but the National Bureau of Statistics has reported energy consumption per unit of economic output in the first half of 2006 rose by 0.8 per cent. Some provincial government officials have also previously warned that the first-year target is not likely to be met but insisted that the five-year benchmark, to cut energy consumption by 20 per cent, could be reached.

Yu Youjun, the governor of coal-rich Shanxi province, said in an interview with the Financial Times last year that an improvement in energy efficiency would show up only in 2007.

Mr Pan's outburst coincided with Sepa's naming on its website of 82 companies for opening or operating factories without the required environmental approvals.

The offending enterprises included China's four big power producers, a number of prominent steel companies and a joint venture involving Michelin, the French tyremaker.

The posting was accompanied by orders for some factories to close, and warnings to others to get proper approvals to continue their operations.

Mr Pan said Sepa would be using a new method to enforce its orders, threatening to put new projects in offending cities on hold unless all industries in the area had proper approvals.

"This is the first time that Sepa will be using this administrative punishment since it was established nearly 30 years ago," he said.

The agency singled out Tangshan, near Beijing, which is one of the country's largest steel-producing centres, as a city that could be subject to this punishment. Of 70 new small- to medium-sized steel mills launched in the city over an unspecified period, Sepa said 80 per cent had not been properly approved.

Sepa is traditionally a weak ministry and has long had trouble in enforcing its writ outside Beijing but this latest outburst is evidence of its growing aggressiveness.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

MPs investigate carbon offset projects: MPs are to investigate the practice of offsetting the environmental cost of personal air travel, amid fears that the system is open to abuse.

MPs investigate carbon offset projects

Inquiry will look at effectiveness of schemes
Compulsory link with air travel to be considered

Will Woodward, chief political correspondent
Thursday January 11, 2007

The Guardian

MPs are to investigate the practice of offsetting the environmental cost of personal air travel, amid fears that the system is open to abuse.

The Commons environmental audit committee's inquiry, to begin next month, was planned before Tony Blair's announcement that he would offset carbon emissions by his and his family's air travel. But it will throw fresh light on the offsetting system, which some environmentalists believe is less effective than billed.

Many environmentalists say the only way forward is to curb air travel, which Mr Blair is resisting.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative chairman of the all-party committee, said last night that he wanted to focus on the voluntary offset market, where private individuals pay for tree planting, improving energy efficiency or cleaning up carbon-intensive industries. "The difficulty about this is it is completely unregulated and therefore there may be some dubious practices we don't know of," he said. "The second problem is establishing that what you are doing wouldn't have happened anyway."

In some cases offsetting could be subsidising existing schemes, rather than funding new ones. "Offsetting can be a very good thing - if the market is run in a reasonably open and transparent way," Mr Yeo said.

The inquiry will consider whether there should be a compulsory UK or European accreditation scheme for carbon offset projects, and whether there is enough clarity in the market to enable consumers to confidently support different schemes. More broadly, it will ask whether offsetting should become compulsory for air travel, and whether there is any evidence at all that offsetting changes the behaviour of consumers.

A statement from the committee said: "Some commentators have suggested that the practice allows prosperous western nations to continue to enjoy carbon-intensive lifestyles at little extra cost while the most immediate effects of unabated climate change will be experienced in the poorer countries of the world." The Blair family's flights to Miami for a winter holiday produced an estimated 11.98 tonnes of C02. It will cost him £89.92 to offset that, according to Carbon Care, the leading offsetting company. But Mr Blair told a press conference on Tuesday: "I'm not going to be in the position of saying I'm not going to take holidays abroad or use air travel, it's just not practical."

The prime minister believes that the general public are more nervous of changing their lifestyles than the green lobby and opposition politicians including Conservative leader David Cameron are prepared to acknowledge.

Downing Street insists economic growth must not be put at risk.

A survey by Halifax Travel Insurance today finds that that 10% of Britons would consider making a financial donation to offset their travel carbon emissions.

The same percentage said they were prepared to fly less to reduce the impact on the environment.

EU unveils plan to tackle global warming

International Herald Tribune
EU unveils plan to tackle global warming
By James Kanter
Wednesday, January 10, 2007



European Union officials challenged governments Wednesday to loosen their grip on national energy sectors, calling for a fresh wave of competition and investment in infrastructure and technology to ease dependence on powerful exporters like Russia and to combat global warming.

The region needs a new "post-industrial revolution," said the European Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, announcing a number of energy proposals. "We have already left behind our coal-based industrial past. It is time to embrace our low-carbon future."

The package is one of the largest ever presented by the commission, although it was watered down by France and Germany, where governments oppose the breakup of their national electricity companies.

EU officials also backed away from earlier, more ambitious targets for cutting emissions after energy-intensive industries and workers' groups warned of threats to profits and jobs — especially if competitors in the United States and elsewhere did not follow suit.

Many of the proposals — which also aim to encourage renewable fuels for cars and to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and home appliances — are to be debated by EU leaders at a summit meeting in March. If they approve the package, many of the measures still would require the commission to draft formal legal proposals.

The plan, dubbed an Energy Policy for Europe, sought to echo the postwar integration of important industrial sectors, namely coal and steel, that eventually grew into the EU's single market. But it fell far short of proposing a unified power market, one that could be overseen by a single regulator, operate on a common grid and benefit from a common front in dealing with energy suppliers.

Christian Egenhofer, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said it was unrealistic to seek to unify energy policy in a trade bloc of 27 disparate countries, some rich, some much poorer. France, for instance, relies on nuclear power for 80 percent of its electricity, while others, like Poland, depend almost entirely on coal to generate electricity.

"In reality it would be nonsense to have a one-policy-fits-all approach," Egenhofer said. "But the EU can use its legal muscle to push member states to overcome nationalist tendencies and to boost competition within countries and across borders."

Over the past 12 months, pressure has been growing on European governments to pool their influence — in particular to negotiate with Russia, which supplies about a quarter of the gas and oil consumed by Europeans.

Underlining the urgency, President Vladimir Putin of Russia cut oil supplies through the Druzhba pipeline in Belarus this week, one year after he temporarily cut gas supplies through Ukraine. The fight over the Druzhba pipeline, which supplies 1.8 million barrels a day to Poland and Germany, has renewed the specter of fuel shortages across Europe

Recent power outages also have highlighted the need to upgrade cross-border transmission networks.

To increase new investment and promote alternative sources of supply, the EU had considered breaking up energy companies into producers and transporters, so that established operators exerted less control over wires and pipes, and so that consumers could benefit from greater choice in suppliers.

But industrialists and government officials in France and Germany fought hard in recent weeks to maintain the current structure of companies like Éléctricité de France and E.ON, which generate power as well as own vast and lucrative distribution networks.

Over the past year, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of France was among leaders who argued that strengthening rather than weakening national energy champions would make it easier for Europe to stand up to foreign suppliers like Gazprom of Russia. De Villepin is trying to merge Gaz de France with another French utility, Suez.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been reluctant to take on national energy champions on the grounds that liberalization is possible without restructuring companies. Energy protectionism also has flared in Spain, where Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sought to block moves by E.ON of Germany to buy Endesa, a Spanish power company.

"Energy markets are not functioning properly," the EU's competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, said Wednesday.

"Customers are suffering as a result," she said, adding that new entrants were finding it hard to compete while incumbent power companies were investing far too little in new transmission lines.

Kroes said she still favored breaking apart some energy companies. But she left open the door to a second, weaker option: allowing for power generators to retain ownership of distribution networks on the condition that they are operated by other companies.

At the same time, Kroes insisted that she would vigorously pursue antitrust investigations after initiating surprise raids last year to look for evidence of anti-competitive practices at companies including E.ON and RWE of Germany.

"During the course of this year we will have more clarity," Kroes said, hinting that the companies that were the targets of those raids could face heavy fines or could be among the first companies ever in Europe to face a breakup.

Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an analyst with CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said the threat of break-up orders could hurt the value of some energy companies like Gaz de France, which makes about 30 percent of its operating profit from stocking and transporting supplies for clients. "We will have to wait and see how long the French and German governments can block the process on a European level," the analyst said.

In another sign that Barroso's vision of transforming the way Europe consumes energy is meeting resistance, officials also backed away from earlier recommendations to cut emissions to levels that experts say are critical to keeping down rising temperatures.

Under pressure from industries like steel, where executives fear losing business if Europe adopts stricter regulations than the rest of the world, the EU recommended cutting emissions level by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Stavros Dimas, the EU's environment commissioner, originally had demanded cuts of 30 percent.

Dimas said Wednesday that the EU could go beyond its 20 percent target — but only if other developed countries followed suit. Europe "cannot solve climate change by itself," Dimas said. "We need global action."

The commission pushed ahead with proposals to encourage the "capture," or trapping, and storage of carbon dioxide emissions, including possibly making it mandatory for all new coal-fired power stations after 2020 to incorporate the new, cleaner technologies.

EU officials also highlighted the benefits of nuclear energy in efforts to curb carbon emissions. But widespread public skepticism about the safety and price of nuclear technology led EU officials to back away from pushing EU states to use nuclear power as a primary weapon against climate change.

Dell Says Plant a Tree, Help the Environment : Mr. Dell urged the electronics industry to foster the planting of trees to offset the effect on the environment of the energy consumed by the devices they make

January 10, 2007
Dell Says Plant a Tree, Help the Environment

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 9 — Michael S. Dell, who made his name building computers, has a new goal: planting trees.

In a speech Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show here, Mr. Dell urged the electronics industry to foster the planting of trees to offset the effect on the environment of the energy consumed by the devices they make.

He said Dell, the computer company he founded, would begin a program called "Plant a Tree for Me," asking customers to donate $2 for every notebook computer they buy and $6 for every desktop PC. The money would be given to the Conservation Fund and the Carbonfund, two nonprofit groups that promote ways to reduce or offset carbon emissions, to buy and plant trees.

Mr. Dell said the trees would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting the equivalent emissions from the production of electricity for computers over three years.

"I challenge every PC vendor in the industry to join us in providing free recycling," Mr. Dell said. "This is a better way than government regulation."

Dell intends to cover the administrative costs of the program. Mr. Dell was not able to estimate those costs.

Customers in the United States will be given the chance to donate when they place an order for a Dell PC. Mr. Dell also said the program would be expanded in April to consumers overseas.

Mr. Dell said in an interview before the speech that the tree-planting idea came up when he and Kevin B. Rollins, Dell's chief executive, discussed the company's efforts to recycle and reduce the use of various chemicals like brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride. He said he thought, "This would be a fantastic way for our customers to get involved."

Mr. Dell said, "I am personally interested in the environment, but I have to give credit to our customers who have encouraged us in this direction."

Dell offers its customers free recycling of their old computers. Dell said it wants to recover about 275 million pounds of old computers from customers by 2009. "We're on track, a little ahead, in fact, to meet our goal," he said.

In his speech, Mr. Dell appealed to the telecommunications industry to speed its efforts to lay high-speed fiber cable that would provide more capacity for content like movies and videos over the Internet to the home.

"I applaud the telecommunications companies that are driving fiber to the home, and I encourage the entire telecom industry to step up and make such fiber available much more broadly," he said.

He noted that high-speed networks are already available in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Dubai, France, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Romania and Slovenia, while the United States lags behind. He said that just 44 percent of American households have a high-speed broadband connection and that only 1 percent of those homes have a fiber connection.


Remembering the Montreal Protocol: As its 20th anniversary approaches, what can the landmark agreement on controlling CFCs teach those who want to control greenhouse gases?

Monday, January 08, 2007
Remembering the Montreal Protocol
As its 20th anniversary approaches, what can the landmark agreement on controlling CFCs teach those who want to control greenhouse gases?
By David Rotman

Until the early 1970s, it could be said that, like politics, all chemistry was local. That changed in dramatic fashion with a series of discoveries concerning the global effects of a family of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. These compounds had played a key role in the midcentury chemical revolution, allowing such innovations as safe refrigeration, cheap aerosol deodorants, and widespread air conditioning. First commercialized by ­DuPont in the early 1930s under the trade name Freon, CFCs appeared to be the perfect industrial chemical: nontoxic, nonflam­mable, and odorless. But in 1973, a pair of chemists at the University of California, Irvine--Sherwood Rowland and his postdoctoral fellow Mario Molina--began to explore the fate of the CFC gases that were being emitted into the atmosphere. Molina began the investigation of CFCs in October of that year, and by Christmas, the researchers had their answer: the CFCs were breaking down in the atmospheric ozone layer, which begins 15 kilometers above the earth, ends roughly 30 kilometers later, and absorbs much of the sun's deadly ultraviolet radiation.

The researchers found that the CFCs wafted up through the lower atmosphere intact, too stable to react with the swirling brew of chemicals around them. But once they reached the mid-­stratosphere, above most of the protective layer of ozone, the intense solar radiation broke the CFC molecules apart, releasing chlorine. Two simple reactions gave Rowland and Molina concern: Cl + O3 = ClO + O2, and ClO + O = Cl + O2. That is, chlorine (Cl) reacted with ozone (O3), generating chlorine monoxide (ClO), which in turn reacted with an oxygen atom to release another chlorine; the net result was that the chlorine was destroying ozone without depleting itself. "When we found the chain reactions" occurring in the ozone layer, remembered Rowland this fall, the fate of CFCs "suddenly went from a scientific curiosity to an environmental worry."

The next decade was a contentious one for ­Rowland and Molina, as many in the general public, the chemical industry, and even the scientific community expressed skepticism that a nontoxic gas sprayed out of a can (in the early 1970s, recalls Rowland, roughly two-thirds of CFCs were used as propellants in aerosol products, such as deodorants) could have a significant impact on the composition of the atmosphere--much less on the viability of life on earth. "If you came off the street, it seemed ludicrous that underarm deodorants might have an effect in a global way," Rowland says.

In 1978 the United States banned the use of CFCs in most spray-can applications. But in the early 1980s, models of the atmospheric chemistry involving CFCs became more and more complex, and various questions arose over the science.

In 1985, Rowland and Molina were vindicated. British scientists using ground-based instruments spotted a gaping "hole" in the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, NASA reported that there was a thinning of the ozone layer over the populated areas of the Northern Hemisphere. These findings proved that Rowland and Molina's chemistry had been correct. They also provided startling evidence that industrial chemicals, emitted largely over the industrialized population centers of North America and Europe, could change the atmosphere on a global scale.

Ozone Diplomacy

This September will mark the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international agreement that set a schedule for freezing and then phasing out the production of CFCs (the 1987 treaty, which mandated halving CFC production in industrial countries by 1998, was subsequently revised; CFC production was ended in the United States by 1996). The Montreal Protocol is widely considered a milestone. Even President Reagan, no friend of environmental regulations, declared it a "monumental achievement" as he signed the treaty.

Two decades later, progress toward an international agreement on controlling greenhouse gases has reached a deadlock, and comparisons are inevitable. There are, of course, differences between CFCs and the gases, including carbon dioxide, that cause global warming. Most important, the energy production that releases carbon dioxide drives the economies of both rich and poor countries. What's more, whereas CFCs were produced by a handful of large chemical companies, carbon dioxide emissions involve many different industries and applications. Curbing greenhouse gases will be far harder and require changes that are far more economically disruptive.

But there are also striking similarities between CFCs and greenhouse gases, and lessons to be learned from the Montreal Protocol--particularly how to get multiple countries, large international corporations, and regulators to agree on a control strategy. In his 1991 book, Ozone Diplomacy, ­Richard E. Benedick, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, health, and natural resources under President ­Reagan, described the compromises that led to the success­ of the Montreal Protocol, detailing the scientific and technological uncertainties and the political disputes that faced those negotiating it. He points out that many elements of his story, particularly the political fighting and the need to reach a consensus in the face of doubt, should be familiar to those attempting to reach an agree­ment on greenhouse gases. As ­Benedick, the chief U.S. negotiator on the Montreal Protocol, writes in the 1998 re­vised edition, "Especially to apologists of inaction on the climate front, the Montreal Protocol can be portrayed as either too simple or not replicable. But although it is obvious that the climate change issue is more complicated and difficult than that of the ozone layer, the differences are quantitative rather than qualitative."

Indeed, in one important respect the effort to reduce greenhouse gases is fundamentally like the effort to reduce CFCs: in each case, those who want change must motivate industry, especially large corporations, to develop the technologies needed to accomplish it. One of the most notable achievements of the Montreal Protocol was that chemical companies quickly saw the market opportunities created by the agreement. By its account, DuPont, the Wilmington, DE-based chemical giant that in the mid-1980s made roughly half the CFCs produced in the United States, spent $500 million over the next few years to develop substitutes. By the early 1990s, DuPont and its industry rivals, which included some of the world's largest chemical manufacturers, had begun to supply CFC substitutes to refrigeration and air-conditioning manufacturers, and they'd launched massive construction proj­ects to build additional capacity to produce these chemicals.

Again, the differences between CFCs and greenhouse gases are ­notable; the new compounds could, more or less, directly replace CFCs, but there are no easy substitutes for burning fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the phaseout of CFCs highlights one factor that's crucial in order for industry to invest in the development of new technologies. By announcing a simple and unambiguous time frame for the end of CFC production, the Montreal Protocol allowed companies to rationally predict and develop markets for alternatives.

A Stern Warning

Can such simplicity be duplicated in an international agreement to control greenhouse gases? Probably not, given the complexity of the task and the great diversity of industries and technologies that need to be part of the solution. But neither should the history of the Montreal Protocol be ignored.

DuPont and the other CFC producers were ultimately motivated by the prospect of a lucrative new market; given such an incentive, their chemists and chemical engineers rushed new technologies into production with unprecedented speed. While finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels is far more difficult, the business opportunities are also far larger. The market for low-carbon energy products will reach $500 billion by 2050, according to the Stern Review on the Economics of ­Climate Change, recently released by the British Treasury.

The effectiveness of any strategy on global warming will depend on how well it creates new markets. That much was learned from the Montreal Protocol. But perhaps the greatest lesson is also one of the simplest: when science shows us a looming environmental disaster, we need to act quickly and decisively, regardless of the economic or technical uncertainties.

David Rotman is the editor of Technology Review.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone L


Taking Control of Electric Bill, Hour by Hour: Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year

January 8, 2007
Taking Control of Electric Bill, Hour by Hour

Ten times last year, Judi Kinch, a geologist, got e-mail messages telling her that the next afternoon any electricity used at her Chicago apartment would be particularly expensive because hot, steamy weather was increasing demand for power.

Each time, she and her husband would turn down the air-conditioners — sometimes shutting one of them off — and let the dinner dishes sit in the washer until prices fell back late at night.

Most people are not aware that electricity prices fluctuate widely throughout the day, let alone exactly how much they pay at the moment they flip a switch. But Ms. Kinch and her husband are among the 1,100 Chicago residents who belong to the Community Energy Cooperative, a pilot project to encourage energy conservation, and this puts them among the rare few who are able to save money by shifting their use of power.

Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Participants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.

Meters that can read prices every hour or less are widely used in factories, but are found in only a tiny number of homes, where most meters are read monthly.

The handful of people who do use hourly meters not only cut their own bills, but also help everyone else by reducing the need for expensive generating stations that run just a few days, or hours, each year. Over the long run, such savings could mean less pollution, because the dirtiest plants could be used less or not at all.

The vast majority of utility customers know only the average price of the electricity they used in any given month. But wholesale prices for electricity are set a day in advance, usually on an hour-by-hour or quarter-hour basis. Power companies and utilities are keenly aware of the pricing roller coaster, but they typically blend the numbers into a single monthly bill for their customers.

For most Chicagoans, the average summer price last year was 8.25 cents a kilowatt-hour. Although Ms. Kinch and her husband at times paid as much as 36.5 cents a kilowatt-hour — the peak price on the humid afternoon of Aug. 2 — they paid less than their neighbors over all. On 38 days, some of their power cost less than a penny a kilowatt-hour.

Other consumers who know the hourly price of their electricity have actually been able to get paid by utilities for power they did not use. In New York City last July, for instance, when there was a blackout in Queens, residents of one building on Central Park West voluntarily cut their demand as much as 42 percent and sold the capacity back into the electricity market so that it could be used where it was more needed.

Certainly, such situations are a big exception. The fact that most people have no idea how much their power costs has emerged as a sticking point in the ongoing effort to restructure the nation's electricity business, which the federal government is moving from a system in which legal monopolies charge rates set by state regulators, toward a competitive system where the market sets the price.

But how does efficient pricing emerge in a business where access to information is so lopsided? A market, as defined by the courts, is a place where willing buyers and sellers who both have reasonable knowledge agree on a price; in the electricity markets, the advantage lies distinctly with those who make and distribute power.

Under either the traditional system of utility regulation, with prices set by government, or in the competitive business now in half the states, companies that generate and distribute power have little or no incentive to supply customers with hourly meters, which can cut into their profits.

Meters that encourage people to reduce demand at peak hours will translate to less need for power plants — particularly ones that are only called into service during streaks of hot or cold weather.

In states where rates are still regulated, utilities earn a virtually guaranteed profit on their generating stations. Even if a power plant runs only one hour a year, the utility earns a healthy return on its cost.

In a competitive market, it is the spikes in demand that cause prices to soar for brief periods. Flattening out the peaks would be disastrous for some power plant owners, which could go bankrupt if the profit they get from peak prices were to ebb significantly.

But as awareness of "smart meters" grows, so does demand for them, not only from consumers and environmental groups but also from government bodies responding to public anger over rising power prices. In Illinois, for example, the legislature passed a law in December requiring the program Ms. Kinch joined four years ago to be expanded from 1,100 customers to 110,000.

The law also required that Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago utility, hire a third party to run the program. It chose Comverge Inc., the largest provider of peak-load energy management systems in North America.

The smart metering programs are not new, but their continued rarity speaks in part to the success of power-generating companies in protecting their profit models. Some utilities did install meters in a small number of homes as early as three decades ago, pushed by the environmental movement and a spike in energy prices.

Today, the same set of circumstances seems to be prompting a revival of interest, and even the utility companies seem resigned to the eventuality of such programs. Anne R. Pramaggiore, the senior vice president for regulatory affairs at Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, said that in the past, interest in hourly meter was transitory.

"We really haven't dealt with these issues for 30 years," she said.

But a sustained effort to install more meters is likely now because of what Ms. Pramaggiore called a "fundamental change" in the energy markets. Rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are — once again — front and center.

When consumers know the price of their electricity in advance and can tailor their use, even minor changes in behavior can lead to lower home utility bills and less reliance on marginal power plants, said Kathleen Spees, a graduate student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.

"Small reductions in demand can produce very large savings," said Ms. Spees, who analyzed prices charged within the PJM Interconnection grid, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity for 51 million people from New Jersey to Illinois.

Consumers who cut back on power use at peak times can do more than just avoid high prices. They can make money, as people in the building on Central Park West learned last summer.

Peter Funk Jr., an energy partner at the law firm Duane Morris who lives in the 48-unit co-op, persuaded his neighbors three years ago to install a single meter to the Consolidated Edison system and then to operate their own internal metering system. That made the building big enough to qualify for hour-by-hour pricing.

When the next day's prices are scheduled to soar, the building superintendent and a few residents get e-mail messages or phone calls. "We have an orderly plan all worked out to notify people" so they can reduce their power use during the designated times, Mr. Funk said.

The residents save more than just the money on power not used during peak periods, when pricing has been as high as almost 50 cents a kilowatt-hour. During the blackout in July, when parts of Queens were without electricity for up to nine days, the building cut demand as much as 42 percent and sold the unused capacity for about $3,000.

That money helps the building offer a valuable benefit: On most weekend mornings, electricity for residents is free.