Friday, February 15, 2008

Dealing with the Energy Crisis

Alternative energy research tends to produce interesting, but useless information. Do you really care how much of the sun’s energy falls on one square meter of land on any given day? Do you benefit by knowing how much electricity is needed to power Chicago? David MacKay, University of Cambridge Physics Professor, is one source of information of this nature. For the most part it’s interesting, but not really helpful. David did get my attention with a couple of statements: “…the people of the developed world are living immorally, and a huge crisis is upon us, unless we change our lifestyle.” I don’t know if we’re living immorally, but it’s hard to deny that an energy crisis exists, and that it’s getting worse.

How did we get into this mess?

Most of the electricity produced in the United States comes from coal-fired power plants. Since coal has always been plentiful and inexpensive, electric rates have been reasonable. Most people spend less than 2% of their household income on electricity, and as a result of its low cost, we tend to waste a lot of it. We use electric doorbells when we could be using mechanical ones. We have electric can openers, hand-lotion warmers, air-fresheners, and many other unnecessary items. In addition to the wasteful items we use by choice, many wasteful items are forced upon us because of a lack of availability of energy-efficient alternatives. Many of our electrical devices use energy even when they’re turned off. These are known as “phantom loads”, and they’re more wasteful than most people realize. Because a device appears to be off, we’re not always aware that it is wasting energy.

How do we correct the problem?

Because our lifestyle includes so many wasteful gadgets, there are many corrective actions we can take. Begin with an energy audit of your home. You’re likely to find some no-cost energy-saving measures you can take that will not adversely affect the quality of your life. Do you really need that plug-in air freshener or hand-lotion warmer? You probably already have surge protectors on your TV’s and stereo equipment. If you use the switch on the surge protector, instead of the remote-control unit for on/off control of your TV, you’ll eliminate a phantom load. Check all of your AC outlets, and remove all unused wall-warts (transformers).

Next, you might want to spend a few dollars on things that will end up costing you nothing by virtue of the savings you’ll see on your electric bill. Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs is a good example. And why not replace your clock-radio with a wind-up alarm clock? Having done those things, it’s time to move on to larger items. Maybe it’s time to replace that old refrigerator with an energy-star-rated model. You might cut $20.00 per month off of your electric bill if you do. And isn’t it time to replace that big old TV in the den with a new 42” plasma model? In doing so you might go from 300-Watts to 100-Watts. You’ll get three hours of TV viewing for the price of one hour. The savings really add up at the end of the month.

After doing all of those things, you might consider geothermal heating and cooling, and solar hot water heating. I use a corn-burning stove to supplement my natural gas heating. Burning corn is a little more work, but it reduces my heating bill significantly. Check with a reliable contractor to see if any of these strategies will benefit you.

How much are you willing to sacrifice?

Once you’ve done all you can to reduce consumption, and perhaps made energy-efficiency improvements to your home, you then need to decide just how far you’re willing to cut back. It’s easy to say “I’ll turn my thermostat down” when the weather is mild, but will you really do it when you’re shivering in the coldest winter months? Will you also cut back significantly on air-conditioning? Be honest with yourself. If it seems like too much of a sacrifice, remind yourself of the negative effects of excessive energy consumption. Cutting back benefits you, your children, and the entire planet.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make all of these changes at once. Do some research and come up with a game plan, and a consumption rate to shoot for. Check the energy-star tags on appliances you intend to buy. Look at your electric bill. If you’re currently averaging 900kwh of electricity per month, that’s a lot. Try to cut it in half. If you’re using 500kwh of electricity per month, try to cut it by at least 25%.

As you work on your plan you’re likely to discover energy-saving lifestyle changes that actually enhance the quality of your life instead of detracting from it. I’ve found it much more pleasant to turn my thermostat down and use an electric blanket in a cool bedroom. An inexpensive Kill-A-Watt meter helps me determine how much I’m saving.

Beyond conservation

After you’ve reduced consumption, the cost of a solar photovoltaic, wind, or a hybrid electric system won’t be so daunting. If you’re not ready to disconnect from the grid entirely, you can install a small system that meets a portion of your needs. If you choose to start small, employ a strategy that helps you get the most out of your system. Solar equipment that is unused, or underused, is counterproductive. Everything you’ll need to automate your system for maximum efficiency is available, and at a reasonable cost.

Expensive gasoline – The other part of the energy crisis

Having a solar electric system in place not only contributes to your independence from the power company, it’s the first step toward gasoline independence. Plug-in-hybrid-electric-vehicles (PHEV’s) will start to show up in dealer showrooms in the year 2010. By charging your car with power from your photovoltaic system, you’ll be driving on free power from the sun instead of expensive gasoline. It’s going to take a substantial system to do the charging, so now would be a good time to get started.

Renewables – No War Required

By purchasing less oil from Middle Eastern countries we not only reduce the amount of money that they have available for war, we eliminate our need to be there in the first place. Since the politicians won’t stop it, it’s up to each of us to lead the way.

When the people lead, leaders follow. Let’s roll!



Anonymous said...

Really good advice here. But let me pick on one thing.
You said 42" plasma TV. The Philips is actually an LCD TV. Plasma really suck up the juice. Also, my 27" tube TV only takes 80 Watts, so the 42" Philips is not an improvement for me.
But this is just a nit-pick. Your advise is wonderful and clear.
John C. Briggs

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