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Monday, July 11, 2005

Environmental Economics

Back in high school science, a teacher told us that energy companies weren't interested in solar panels on homes because it would be virtually impossible to meter them. Of course, in a society where people can't set the clock on the VCR, I doubt a huge number of people would mess around with such a meter. Even then, power companies would certainly be able to meter power going to them if they wanted to buy it back. The truth is, power companies always make more in absolute dollars when energy prices are high.

I don't begrudge oil and electric companies from making profits. If they were that successful at it, people would be investing more money in the stocks. But ultimately, energy speculation is fueling some of this rise and prices will go down as the economy and demand levels off.

I do think it's a good idea to look to the future of energy usage. Some things are just common sense money savers while others are being 'green' for the sake of being green. We should remember that money is a commodity, too. Every dollar we spend on an investment that doesn't pay off is one less dollar we save for retirement. That's less money we have for the future and may be one more hour we have to drive around in that gas eating car to pay for that gas eating car.

Probably the cheapest and most cost effective savings is in the compact fluorescent bulb. These fit in the regular light socket and are either a spiral tube or a tube inside a bulb to fit certain lamp styles. Currently, the low cost ones run about $3 per bulb.

Current electric rates are around 6 cents per kilowatt hour. That figure is low, since the power company tacks on a "delivery charge" no matter how little you use. I chose a more accurate 8 cents. A 13 watt fluorescent taking the place of a standard 60 watt bulb will pay for itself in just 750 hours (1 month at 24 hours a day or 4 months at 6 hours a day). Over the 6000 hour span of some of the bulbs, that could result in a 70% savings over the cost of standard bulb replacement and consumption.

Another idea to look into is technology. I found an old power study from Microsoft showing how LCD monitors and laptops consume less power than traditional PCs. However, considering the costs involved, I would only suggest this as the way to go for the next PC. Just remember, the best screen saver is to turn off the screen.

I would, however warn against excessive on/off switching of electronics. The satisfaction of having your VCR on a power strip to save $1 of electricity a year could be replaced by having to toss it in the landfill months before its time because the capacitors dried out. Besides, many VCRs and DVD players are now built with on screen only displays with just 1 or 2 LEDs on the front panel. In the alternative, anything with an external AC/DC adapter (big block plug) like a charger can be unplugged or switched off safely and is better for the adapter anyway.

Living in a farming area, I've become interested in biodiesel. One thing that the US has in abundance is land mass. Growing fuel would provide a stable source of energy. In automotive terms, I think the hybrid is a very interesting trend. I also think it's a bad idea to buy one just for the sake of buying one. If you pick up a Prius instead of the SUV you were going to buy, it would make some sense. You can always rent a pickup. In reality, going from a 20 MPG to a 45 MPG car will probably only save you about $600 a year. A person could save a lot more by keeping a car an extra year.

Probably the biggest difference between a conservative and a liberal on the environment is that conservatives don't fear the landfill. With careful limitations on the garbage put in, landfills can provide jobs, energy and even land in rural communities. This is where environmentalism diverges from wise stewardship into earth worship. There is a belief out there that the products of civilization are bad for your health. In fact, science and technology has made people safer, healthier and longer lived. The unwise use of the products of civilization can be bad for us, but that is an individual choice. People should make wise choices. After doing the math, I went out and bought compact fluorescent bulbs. I took my SUV.


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