Electricity is not the Enemy

There’s nothing like an extended loss of power to illustrate just how much energy we consume.

Once Hurricane Ike finished with Texas, it wound its way up through the Midwest, and knocked my electricity out for close to three days. Living in the dark offered some interesting insight into the various reasons we use power – essential and frivolous – and a clearer view into just how difficult it will be to revamp our current energy system to be both reliable and efficient.

As you might imagine, when we first lost power it was the obvious things we missed.  Television, lights, etc. We grabbed up the flashlights and candles and solved the one problem we could.  Our other biggest immediate challenge was the loss of Internet service.  Laptops will work on batteries, but our DSL router and modem are pluggers – which means even wireless Internet doesn’t work.

We’d have had no access to news, weather and emergency info without our hand-crank radio. (Get yourself one of these – ours offers radio and tv audio, as well as access to weather stations.  It also has a cell phone charger.  www.llbean.com.)

There was the “to-open or not-to-open” refrigerator debate.  Normally, if you can keep the fridge and freezer closed, contents can survive for about 48 hours.  But we, and more importantly our two toddlers, needed to eat, so we opened – and subsequently closed as quickly as possible.  We spent the next two days trying to keep our kids from opening the fridge, and trying to survive on things we found outside its doors.  Eventually, for safety’s sake, we went to the giant white fishing cooler and ice purchased from a grocery store.

Like a surprisingly large number of Americans, (somewhere around 50 percent in my state of Pennsylvania), we get our water from a well.  Not the kind with a bucket and a rope.  Modern wells are operated with electric pumps.  So for those of us who live in the deep suburbs or more rurally, no power means no water.  No water means no showers/baths, no toilet flushing (unless you help it along with buckets of water – which you can only get if you’re a little more industrious than most, since your pump is off), no water to drink or wash hands unless you have some bottled on hand or wait for store bought ice to melt, no laundry, and no water for cleaning.  Living on a farm, we also had no water for animals and pets.

What surprised me most perhaps was how many “mission critical” items in a home rely on electricity.  We’ve no doubt come to take the blessings of refrigeration for granted.  Having to empty our fridge/freezer, and storage freezers of contents on day three drove that point home.  Few of us likely think too hard about food safety until faced with an emergency – its one of the things electricity has eased from our minds to some degree. 

For those of us using wells, electricity has allowed a level of sanitation once not available.  Together with refrigeration, it’s made suburban and rural life more practical – and likely added to overall life expectancy.  Had this been winter, we’d all have been freezing as well. Electricity has also made us more comfortable – and much safer – when getting warm in extreme temperatures.

The point being this – electricity is not the enemy, green friends.  Yet how we produce is problematic.  But for those advocating a sudden death to all coal-fired power anytime soon, it may be time for a reality check.  The benefits of electric power to human life have surpassed our current ability to produce enough clean energy to reliably service everyone at the current time. 

I’m not talking about the “comforts” of energy guzzlers like plasma televisions, video game systems, and various chargers for all of our wireless gizmos.  I’m talking about simple basics electrical needs – refrigeration, heat, light and water.  Even with everyone on board, transferring from fossil fuel electricity to clean technology will require a transition period, phase out and turn over – so in the meantime, coal is going to need to part of our plan if we’re all going to have RELIABLE power. The coal problem is a big one – and while I hate to say it, we may not be able to solve it without relying on those black rocks a little longer.

The role of us small people is more important than every while things get sorted out.  Get compact fluorescents in all the lights in your home.  Buy Energy Star and use appliances correctly.  Get media plugged into a power strip that can be turned off when not in use.  Unplug chargers when not charging.  Teach your children about energy conservation.  Pass on the new plasma – and demand manufacturers find ways to make these things more efficient.  Demand “kid powered” toys. Get a programmable thermostat.  Recycle. Run your laptop on the battery.  Run only full loads in your washer, dryer and dishwasher. Take colder showers. Wash in cold water. Do everything you can to keep your consumption down until better methods prevail. 

If we all did, King Coal’s retirement may come a bit earlier.

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