Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Possibility.

I'm in favor of action. A very large part of why I'm not in a university. Pose a problem for them- and they will cheerfully host meetings; forever. Our government, in case you hadn't noticed, has adopted this method.

So when a good solid observation hits me, my tendency is to look for a way to turn it into a positive action; something actually feasible, in this world.

A serious shortcoming to my desire for action is the plain fact that people HATE to change. Whenever a major change is suggested, or demanded by circumstances, history is absolutely clear on what to expect- most folks will say a) it's not possible, and b) you're wrong, and c) I won't do it. History, however is also clear on another point- change IS possible, and does happen.

A little parable as an aside. Spouse (not Spice) taught piano for several years; often in the Little House, where I'd designed the floor specifically to hold the weight of her grandmother's upright. I got to hear a lot of lessons. I'm really NOT quick to draw conclusions about any observations; only after long repetition of this pattern did I admit it IS a pattern. And it still astonishes me. Universally- and I do mean universally; every time a piano student was presented with a new piece of music; one slightly more challenging than the last - their reaction was/is ALWAYS - "I can't do this. I CAN'T." And they seem to believe that. Each time. Segue to 2 weeks later- whatever aspect of that piece of music seemed impossible to them- is now second nature; they accomplish it and don't even notice they've done it. So they get a new piece of music to tackle; and the cycle starts over. "I can't do this. I CAN'T."

Eventually I experimented with a couple of the more accessible students- and pointed this out to them. It didn't really help. It now seems to me there may be a hardwired basic biological reaction here - amounting to "look, you're alive now; don't change what you're doing." The critical part being - "don't change."

The world we've now created requires extensive change. And we're really quite bad at change, as a species.

All this is supposed to make YOU the reader a little less likely to think "oh, that's just crazy talk" (thank you, Vanessa); and a little more likely to listen to the scheme below and think; "hm; that might be worth trying. How do we do it?"

Continuing from the last post- one of Friedman's incontrovertible truths was "He’s dead right. The market alone won’t work. Government’s job is to set high standards, let the market reach them and then raise the standards more."

This being at least a partial contradiction of his previous dogma "the only way ... — is by mobilizing free-market capitalism."

Part of what I pull out of that- along with some obvious truths available to us all - is that the "free market" is NOT working to help solve society's energy problems. And the "government standards" are not working either. Yet.

History is priceless for multiple reasons. Certainly it can show us past mistakes, and teach us not to do them again- Vietnam, for example. But it can also, less obviously, show us how we got into current messes; and consequently suggest ways to get out of them.

The way the world energy markets work at the moment is a big fat catastrophic mess. How did we get here?

Our energy economy didn't come into being until pretty recently- a couple hundred years for coal; less for oil and electricity. There are lots of records available to explain how the "market" grew up.

Here's the problem; as ALL our markets operate today-


I get a great deal of amusement out of every neophyte pundit "discovering" that "the cheapest power plant is the one you don't have to build." Cutting our consumption of energy is by far the cheapest, fastest, biggest, and lowest impact pathway to a non-toxic economy. And how many big businesses are focusing on energy conservation as their new path to profitability? Maybe it's not zero; but it's dang small. The great majority are busy figuring out fantasies where nobody has to give up anything, and their new "energy source" is amazingly clean, saves our SUVs, and, incidentally, the planet.


If we are going to survive- I think we have to get that statement inverted - to:


See, here is where your automatic pilot kicks in with - "you CAN'T do that." and "that's just crazy talk." :-)

But it isn't just crazy talk; because all the reasons that combined to make the markets this way - no longer hold true. We COULD invert it- and rather easily; because in fact most energy sales rates are already controlled by governments; not the free market. WE control them.

Let's just run through electricity- which of course is generated by coal and oil, etc. I'm going to toss out some "example" numbers- please don't comment here that your rates are different- of course they are. These are just approximations- but DO check out the relationships. They're accurate.

You have a home, owned or rented. You pay something like 6-8¢/kWh (kilowatt hour). There are lots of schemes out there for making costs reflect reality a little better- like cheaper "off peak" charges, etc. But they all still work the same way- the more, the cheaper.

Down the road from you is a Super WalMart. They run 24 hrs a day; all lights and refrigerators and freezers and TVs on.
They pay something like 3-5¢/kWh.

Further down the road is a steel mill. They melt metals- sometimes using electric blast furnaces. They pay 2-3 ¢/kWh.

Look it up- your rates are a matter of public record; usually available on the internet with little work searching.

There are at least three historical reasons for these kinds of rates.

1) In the early days of the electrical industry, there was no real power distribution system in existence- you had to build new powerlines for nearly every customer. Arguably; hooking up your house is about as expensive as hooking up WalMart. Arguably. Not in reality, of course- they need much heavier connections, which cost more. And the steel mill is off the charts, there; they have to have their own high-tension lines and substations.

2) In the early days of the electrical industry, there were no big customers already buying power. In order to extend the benefits of clean power to them, operations like the steel mill had to be seduced from coal- arguably, they wouldn't/couldn't change unless offered outrageously cheap power.

3) "Progress" clearly demanded we "grow the electrical industry" - all society would benefit from this new, convenient, clean, cheap, adaptable form of energy.

None of these reasons, I maintain, are at all sensible today; if they ever were. The truth behind why the steel mill pays so little contains the fact that they might, if not given really cheap rates, just build their own power plant. Can't have that.

The power distribution system is mostly "built", though in constant need of repair. At this point, clearly the needs of the large consumers put the most load on the power grid. They should pay more.

There is no shortage of large customers for electric power.

There is no benefit to society, or the world, from electric consumption, per se, being increased; quite the contrary.

What could work instead: electric rates for homes should start low- power for a "normal" amount of annual electric consumption should be very inexpensive.

Just for example- according to the US Dept. of Energy- average US household electricity consumption in 2001 was 10,656 kWh. DOE Power Consumption

We know perfectly well that few of us are as careful with energy as we could be. So let's set the bar a little lower; say the first 8,000 kWh per year should cost 3¢/kWh. Then the next 2,000 should cost 4¢. The next 2,000 -5¢. Then I'd make it steeper; because you're getting into stuff like - lights for your swimming pools; lights for your landscape, tv's in every room- costs that have nothing to do with survival; which is what we're talking about protecting here. So the next 2,000 should cost 8¢; and the next 2,000 should cost 12¢, and the next 2,000- 20¢. You get the idea.

This would give all homeowners a tangible incentive to pay attention to their power consumption. Would they cut back? Not a doubt in the world.

And, incidentally, it would protect the power companies' profits- which is a major concern here if such a change is to happen. They'll scream like stuck pigs if anybody suggests anything that would cut into their sacred profits. All the widows and orphans who own their stock would suffer and die of starvation, don'tcha know. There's no reason why they should. Power company income and profits can stay the same- they will just come to a larger extent from the biggest consumers; not the smallest.

And the steel mill? They don't have to go out of business. Rate changes can be phased in- so they have plenty of time to make adjustments in their operations. No reason it can't be done intelligently, and compassionately.

Sure- their product will then have to cost more. The fact is; it should, and MUST.

We have to get to a world where the actual energy expense for an item is PAID for in its cost. At the moment, our consumer product prices are fantasies; full of weird subsidies and leftover false pricing.

Quite a large part of this is psychological. The Board at the steel mill just never realizes how wasteful they are- power is so cheap they don't even think about it. If they get a little jolt here- they WILL think about it, I guarantee. Will they find ways to economize? Of course. And the potential gains for society are very large indeed- getting households to cut 10% of their power consumption would be nice. Getting the oil refineries and steel mills to cut 10% of THEIR power consumption would be ENORMOUS.

At the moment, they have no incentive to do so. None.

Could this be done? Oh, yeah. Not without a fight, for sure; but the power is already in the hands of citizen power rate boards, in most states. And we could even get the power companies on our side- by allowing their profits to rise just a tad, for every zillion kWh's conserved. That would be a real societal benefit.

My point here. Have you ever heard this idea discussed/suggested? I doubt it. So far as I know, I thought it up; though I'd not be at all surprised if others are thinking similar thoughts. Is it simple? Sure. I'd even say "obvious" - but then I've been thinking it for a year or more now. Doable? Yes. Worth discussing more widely? Yep. And not included in the "the ONLY way..." kinds of calculations. There are LOTS of ways.

It's another example of "we have not yet begun to think", and an example of an action- not a discussion - that is within our reach. Just writing about it all - and mouthing new catch phrases - doesn't cut it.


Anonymous said...

Now this idea I could live with. I think. Getting rid of my fridge? Grocery shopping everyday? It ranks right up there with no TP on my list of changes that just go too far.

My power company, AEP, has a program that is one teeny step toward this. You get a discounted rate if your usage remains below 700kWh each month in the summer. If you make that, you get the lower rate (though they don't provide the actual rates) until the next summer. If you blow it one month you get the higher rate through the next summer. Unfortunately I blew it in August thanks to AC. And yes, I know I don't NEED AC, but it's number three on my list of sacred things that I'm probably not changing until someone makes me (or it becomes impossible to afford).

All of this gets me down a bit. If I, a person who cares about the environment and is probably willing to make more changes than the average joe (or at least compared to my friends and family), already have this growing list of things I won't change, what hope is there that everyone else will do anything? --C

Greenpa said...

C - hey, we use TP! :-) Your power company reminds me of the credit card companies- lots of friendly talk; but if you are a day late with a payment, and they CAN screw you- they DO. Why on earth can't they just charge less when you DO meet the goal? Wouldn't kill them. About other people making changes- sure, it's a problem. A huge part of why I was so quiet for so long- nobody wanted to hear, in fact it would just irritate them. Necessity- is creeping up on us, though. And I remain convinced that personal behavior can be the best convincer, ultimately. Try saying "I'm not ready to change" rather than "I won't." Sounds better, even inside your own head.

Anonymous said...

I live in PR. We already pay 12 cents for the power and only when the oil factor surcharge isn't too high that month-- those months it's lots more. We pay these rates because we have a terribly isolated and inefficient system run by a corrupt government and violently greedy union members.
But, it is true that we are forced to cut down our use because the costs are abusive. Also recently a graduated water bill was introduced and the costs per cubic meter of water goes way up as soon as you get past a few meters and after a few dozen more, it becomes prohibitive. Water wasting is way down. That is, when there is actually any water to waste. Often the company just doesn't have any to send us anyway, so we are bathing with spit. It's third world chic, mon.
I'm not making any of this up. Even if you North Americans think it is a joke.
We have a lot of incentive to get back to primitivity here. Modern life at our rates is a luxury.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I just checked this month's bill. Counting all charges, I am paying 19.2 cents per kwh. I only use 290 kwh a month, am residential. Would not dream of having A/C.

Anonymous said...

I'm in favor of action. A very large part of why I'm not in a university.

So far, your best comment. I 've led a life based on action too, and lots of change. That's because I'm easily bored and I'm easily made impatient by the dullness of the society around me. I attended University for a short time and couldn't wait to escape. Meanwhile, if the folks at the U world have any answers for us in this world of heat and shrinkage, could they please speak up soon?

Hank Roberts said...

Couple thoughts:

Rocky Mtn. Institute points out somewhere that the size of electrical wires required by the building codes is sufficient to keep the number of electrical fires low (the wires can still get very hot, carrying the load people draw, just not hot enough to burn off the insulation, melt the copper, and arc through the copper vapor into your stud wall spaces).
And RMI says that doubling the wire diameter would cut losses from resistance (energy lost as heat) to repay the cost of using bigger wire in a few years -- particularly for big business/commercial buildings, of course.

And RMI also says, why haven't you businesspeople ever gotten a bid from an electrician to do your commercial wiring job this way? Obviously, you wouldn't take her bid.

And I thought, damn, the union electrician I hired to help me when I rewired our 1920s bungalow did a good plan ---convinced me to put in about 18 circuits and a 200-amp service, and I convinced her to plan for metal-clad wire instead of Romex and teach me to do the work, and that was all good. The city inspector crawled all over the attic on final saying "beautiful work, beautiful" -- they like it when homeowners overbuild the stuff you _can't_ see in the housing stock, for good reason. They're there to protect the housing stock, the people come and go like mayflies, but the buildings go on for a lot longer.

But neither of us thought about going to say 10 or 8-gauge wire.

And it'd have been damned cheap, I did most of the work; yeah, it's harder to wrestle 10-gauge than 12-gauge, but we ran some 10-gauge for the longest run and it wasn't any big deal. I could've done it. I hadn't a clue because I didn't think to ask.

And said electrician, her electrician days behind her, went off to her second career (she'd been accepted at medical school) so I can't ask her, 12 years later, if she'd even thought of it.

Missed opportunity.

Another thought ---

Kim Stanley Robinson's climate trilogy is in its third volume now (Sixty Days and Counting). And several times in there, the question comes up --- why do we have so many toys, but such limited healthcare and housing stock?

Good question, that. How come we don't notice that far more is wasted on disposable crap than it would take to get the whole nation decent healthcare and economic, energy-efficient housing? Why do we make such bad choices? Do we hate freedom, that we waste it this way?

Able Ponder said...

I miss your how I do it posts! Right now you remind me a bit of my father-in-law, a very intelligent and long-winded man.

That being said: as a medieval history person, England was instituting bans against the mondo-emissions sea coal in the 12th century (London fog started a long time ago) and importing timber from Scandinavia by the 13th, as they'd completely deforested England to keep the iron forges burning.

Pollution has a long, long history. I think we're just at the population point where it's got a global effect.

Anonymous said...

Below is from another comment:


But neither of us thought about going to say 10 or 8-gauge wire.

And it'd have been damned cheap, I did most of the work; yeah, it's harder to wrestle 10-gauge than 12-gauge, but we ran some 10-gauge for the longest run and it wasn't any big deal. I could've done it. I hadn't a clue because I didn't think to ask.

My observation:

Uh, hold on. I'm an electrician. There are a ton of problems with the reasoning in that comment, and the lack of any knowledge of science or theory related to the power engineering in residences is the main one.

Please, Greenpa, try to review these comments a little better. This one is based on some truth {what resistance is about} but it has a rather scrambled trajectory that doesn't end up anywhere and can leave the reader believing that the wiring in their house may be substandard. I have to believe that you would know enough about this from your own off grid activities to tidy up the errors. I notice the commenter never gets into the fine points of cable bundles, mixed AWG sizes in the same conduit, THHN vs UF vs RHW and also the concepts of wiring for AC {very little loss over a distance} VS DC {extreme loss over very short distances}and mixed AC and DC systems to take advantage of power that need not be run through an inverter.
Nor does the commenter even touch upon breaker amperage or circuit design when dwelling upon fire hazards. Never mentions the new regulations about Arc Fault Devices.
In short, this was a comment about house wiring by a person with excellent intentions and virtually no knowledge.

Anonymous said...

A note to you Greenpa. Despite my cranky comments {also a grandpa} I love your site, but am somewhat impatient with the dumbed down aspects.

Anonymous said...

the union electrician I hired to help me when I rewired our 1920s bungalow did a good plan ---convinced me to put in about 18 circuits and a 200-amp service,

I have the feeling that A, this is an awful lot of Amperage in a cottage unless the heat, stove, garage, the A/C and lots of cooling and freezing are packed in there and ALL electric and B, the writer was sold a bill of goods.

I can say this for sure: this place sucks up some juice, baby!

Anonymous said...

Hi RC. Thanks for the info on what's happening in PR. I have to say I don't usually pay much attention to your area, in general. My focus has been more on making folks I know more aware of options and choices in their living (mostly by stuff my husband and I are doing), posting info on what's happening environmentally (bee hive CCD, etc.), and so on.

We've cut down on electricity and water use, but nothing like what you have to deal with. But we have cut our monthly electric bill in half.

Do you get a lot of rain there? Any chance of using containers to catch some of the rain against times of year when company doesn't have water to send or it costs too much?

We're greatly expanding our veg. garden this year, trying to produce more of our own food, and will be making the walkpaths between the rows deep, so that when it rains the water gets trapped in the deep part, instead of running downhill. Helps to water the garden for us. Based on the permaculture 'swales', but smaller because we don't have a big yard.

And we use candles at night and sometimes an oil lamp - good enough for general illumination for our activities, although we have to add more candles for reading -- the reflectors I made help to increase the candle power as well. Don't know how much candles cost in PR, though. And of course, never leave a candle unattended, so it's only in the room we're in. Oil lamps are a little more secure for leaving the room for a bit, but don't cast as much light.

Thanks for posting on the electric wire thing; I was kind of curious about that.

Anonymous said...

Hi anonymous,

One way to cut down on your AC is to go somewhere else during the hottest part of the day. Malls and libraries always have their AC on. It would be better if they didn't use so much electricity of course, but since they will whether or not anyone goes there, you might as well save some electricity (and CO2, etc) by using theirs instead. A friend of mine used to do this when she was in school in DC. She'd bring all her work and even some hobby stuff and stay at the library for several hours. Or you may even find they have books you want to read :D

Do you have insulated shades? At home we open the windows in the evening/overnight when it's cooler, then as soon as the temps hit around 74F we close the windows and pull the shades -- helps keep the house cooler/more bearable for longer. We live in a 2-story plus attic, so we'll sometimes also open a window at the top, so that the heat can pass through and up.

And when we do use the AC (I have asthma, so sometimes we just have to use it), we section off the part of the house I'll be spending the most time in, so that the AC is only working to dry out the air in a contained space, not the entire building. We have a window AC, not central. If you have central, I don't know if you can localize it that way.

Also, people always talk about insulating for the winter, but it's important in the summer, too. You can insulate with layers of fabric hanging on the warmest walls, and full bookcases can help make a thicker wall as well (although I would put some fabric between the case and the wall, so it's a continuous insulation).

Just some ideas that I hope are helpful.

Anonymous said...

Greenpa - great idea. The current rate system for utilities is abysmal, partly because their subsidies are perversely based on how much electricity they sell. You actually aren't the first person to come up with the idea of paying more for consuming lots of a utility - this idea has been tossed around to encourage water conservation here in Arizona. Even Lovins is hip to the game: on page 278 of Friedman's bible, Natural Capitalism, he states: "Utilities often manipulate tariff structures to discount higher use or penalize efficiency... Getting the incentives right so that rewards are granted for what we want - lower bills - and not the opposite - higer sales - will make such distortions couterproductive and rare."

For the anti-academics: I agree that, by and large, our educational system is severely dysfunctional and is probably more of the problem than the solution. But not everywhere. I go to the Gallatin School, a subdivision of NYU where students create their own major, and much of my learning has been experiential. I'll be graduating in a year, and I think my college experience has only made me more equipped to do some serious activism. It's only when what goes on in the college STAYS in the college that acedemics get so annoying.

Anonymous said...

For RC, with good electrical advice --- absolutely yes. If it'd occurred to me to ask when we rewired our house, I'm sure our professional electrician would have given me the same advice. I raised it because Lovins says it's an idea to consider for commercial construction and because I wondered.

We did in fact put in the ground fault interrupter breakers that were newly available in the late 1990s --- our inspector had to look them up, to allow them.

And the newer arc fault interrupters definitely look better yet. Thanks for the reminder.

My basic point was --- to ask what might be _better_ than the electrical code minimum requirement, when designing. That's how we put in ground fault interrupter breakers back then --- the electrician said, well, these are approved elsewhere, your inspector won't know about them, but ought to accept them.

Same for us putting in an earthquake interrupter on the house gas line --- not required at the time by the residential code, the insurance inspector had never seen one installed and was delighted ---- that was our plumber's answer to the same question, "what can I do that's smart that goes beyond what the code and the inspector will require?"

But I'll be more careful than ever to repeat ---- ask someone smarter, look this stuff up, I post what I know and expect to be corrected.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and to follow up; a 200-amp service is standard here in new construction. I had to replace the old wiring and plumbing, to get earthquake insurance. I did most of the labor, so it cost time and materials.

Code here required two circuits wherever the lights need to stay on if a tool trips a GFI or overloads a breaker. That made sense to me for most rooms.

I don't want to be in the dark listening to any of my power tools spinning down, trying not to move my hands.

Yep, it's way more than our host's using.