Imagine your favorite big-box store invited you to go on a shopping spree. To make it more exciting, they took all the price tags off the goods. “You don’t have to pay now. Come back tomorrow and every day to get whatever you like, and we’ll send you a bill at the end of the month.” Although the shopping would be great fun, the sticker shock at the end of the month might be a rude surprise.
Now think of the way we buy electricity. We can have as much as we want, 24/7. There are no price tags on the electricity flowing to our many machines. If I want to leave the lights on all day while I’m at work, I can do it. If it is more convenient to turn on a space heater than to put on a sweater, that’s OK too. The bill won’t show up for weeks. To use an animal psychology metaphor, it is kind of like if the dog barks every night, but you only spank him once a month. He just doesn’t make the connection on an emotional level. The consequences are remote from the action.
On my kitchen counter I have a little monitor called The Energy Detective. It looks like an electric clock, but instead of telling time, it tells how many watts of electricity my house is using at any given moment. It plugs into the wall and communicates through the wiring with a measuring device installed in the breaker box. Right now, as I type on my computer, the Energy Detective reads 280 watts. Those watts include the computer, the refrigerator, and some electric clocks. The Energy Detective is not the same as the city electric meter. The meter, if you can figure out how to read it, tells you how many kilowatt-hours you have used over a period of time. The meter is like the odometer in your car; it tells you how far you have gone. The Energy Detective is like the speedometer. It tells you how fast you are using electricity right now.
If I turn on my electric oven, the Energy Detective jumps up to 3200 watts. In hot weather the air conditioner could make it shoot up to 10,000 watts. Those are the big power hogs, but all the little things add up too. The television uses almost as much electricity when it is turned “off” as when it is on, because it is really in standby mode. I tried unplugging every single electric thing I could find in the whole house, but I could only get the Energy Detective down to 50 watts, because some of the kitchen appliances that I can’t unplug are also in standby mode. Fifty watts doesn’t sound like much, but every house in America is using 50 to 100 watts of electricity even when everything is supposedly turned off. This persistent drain of power is called “phantom load.” A phantom load of 100 watts adds up to 876,000 watt-hours of extra electricity per year, equivalent to an extra month of electric charges. About 10% of all electricity generated in the United States is used for phantom loads. That’s a lot of coal plants burning just so our TVs can be ready for us without warming up.
It turns out that when you can see how much electricity you are using, there is an immediate motivation to turn something off. You can’t help yourself; you just want to turn something off. It’s like operant conditioning. The bell rings and the dog salivates. Most people automatically decrease their energy usage by 5 to 20% once they see what they are using. After all, the lights burning in an empty room don’t improve your quality of life, so why pay for them? The best alternative energy is the energy we don’t use at all.
Home energy monitors are made by several different companies (Blue Line, Black and Decker) and most cost in the range of $50 to $120. Fancier models can communicate with your computer or smart phone and notify you when usage is high. A monitor will pay for itself in just a few months by decreasing your consumption of electricity.