Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 01.31.08
Just Outside Washington


Energy use: the moral equivalent of war?

Per person in the US of A, we each use the equivalent of 64 barrels of oil each year or 114,000 kilowatt hours (KWHr) of electricity. Swedes and Germans use a lot less energy per person -- 44 and 32 barrels, respectively.

Some of us have begun to try to bring down our individual use of energy by buying compact fluorescent bulbs and hybrid cars. And some have even gone green with their homes, using triple paned windows, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar panels for electricity.

What about those who havenÕt tried to change?

There is technology to cut way back on individual energy use, so why donÕt we do it? One answer is "energy is too cheap." (That is another conversation.)

Another answer is the structure of the way we purchase things, which determines the decisions we make. For example, to install electrical solar panels on my house would cost about $40,000. I can get that money back in savings and electricity purchases by the power company of my excess (that is if they will agree to pay me). However, it will take twenty years. So the decision is: do I spend $40,000 now to save money in twenty years?

Are you kidding? For 40 grand I can buy that used Porsche Boxster that I saw. And besides, I may be dead in twenty years.

The power company, on the other hand, when it decides to build another coal fired power plant, looks at the initial cost financed over twenty or thirty years. It knows how much it is charging the 350,000 homes that will buy the electricity and calculates when the power plant will be paid off. The power company figures it will still be around in twenty years.

If they made a mistake on the calculation, they can go back to the state public utilities commission for a rate increase.

Now, what happens to this scenario if the power company pays for the solar panels on my house? I do not spend the $40,000, but the power company charges me a quarter cent more per KWHr which is about $5 on my monthly bill. Why would I do that?

Because the power company would guarantee that my bill would not increase as fast as people without the solar panels plus I get bragging rights for my conservation efforts for the cost of a Starbucks Latte per month. If 350,000 families in my area agreed to have solar panels installed by the power company, we might even be able to save $5 per month on our electric bills.

The problem is still low personal payoff. Not like buying the Porsche where I get immediate benefits, including the envy of my friends and neighbors. In the 1970s, when we had the first energy crisis, Jimmy Carter said that to solve the energy problem we needed to make it "the moral equivalent of war."

Well, hello! It is not the equivalent, it is war.

Energy will be continued.