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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Glasgow Solutions to Energy Prices

From our perspective here in Glasgow, it is easy for us to feel that there is nothing we can do to combat the world-wide problems associated with the spiraling cost of all forms of energy. However, the converse is certainly not true. Even though Glasgow is a long way from the seats of power where the costs of energy are determined, the price decisions seem to be finding us without any problem or hesitation.

Today’s newspaper tells us that the price of oil just topped $124 per barrel. Within a few hours, the increase is passed along to us at gasoline stations right here in Glasgow. Four dollar per gallon gasoline is virtually assured. Five dollar a gallon gasoline is pretty darn likely before 2008 is history. Eight cent kilowatt-hours arrived in Glasgow on April 1. Shockingly high rates for natural gas will also arrive in our small town very soon. All energy sources virtually draw from the same pool and they will all continue to rise in price driven by two forces: demand and speculation. Even though most of us feel there is nothing we can do about either of these forces, the truth is, even from right here in Glasgow, we can blunt the effect of both of them if we put our minds to the task.

The force that is causing most of the daily headlines (other than the local newspaper’s curious interest in the contractual discussions between the EPB and Dana Corporation) is speculation in oil futures by those who worship profit ahead of all other things. This activity consists of money managers for large investment funds bidding up the price of oil to be delivered in the future. Their goal is to make more money. They feel that they can make more money by investing in oil to be delivered in the future because they think that you and I are totally incapable of moderating our usage of gasoline, and, thus, that we will simply pay whatever the price is. Now, we all must admit that, so far, those greedy money-changers have been correct and we have been helping them win their bets and feather their nests. But wouldn’t you like to see them lose a few bucks? Wouldn’t it be fun to prove them wrong and leave a lot of their $124 per barrel oil sitting around for them to swim in? Are you willing to make a few changes in order to get a chance to see this happen? If so, read on.

If we want to take the wind out of the speculator’s sails, we must be willing to respond to the other great force...our demand for energy. We use too much fossil fuel in all its forms. We use too much electric power and that means we are using too much coal and natural gas, and, to some extent, diesel fuel, because all of those fossil fuels are used to generate electric power. The main reason we are using too much electric power is that we waste so much of it by concentrating our demands into about four hours a day. We’ll talk more about that in a bit. We also use too much gasoline and much of that is simply wasted as well. The main reasons that we waste so much gasoline are the inefficiency of the vehicles we drive, and, the bad habits we have in the way we drive them and the way we design the roads we drive them upon.

So what can we do right here in Glasgow to combat the forces of speculation and demand? To a great extent, we have been gearing up to fight the wasteful demand for electric power since 1988. That was when we started building the broadband network that was first designed to help us better regulate energy usage in Glasgow, and later came to be used as the medium which delivers cable television, internet, and telephone services as well as electric power telemetry. On your behalf, we have been doing battle with TVA and other electric power behemoths for twenty years, trying to convince them to let us demonstrate how telecommunications can be blended with electric power to level out the daily demand spikes and allow us to live within the capacity of existing power generation facilities. Only within the last few months has that battle started to go our way. Finally, it seems that TVA might be about to recognize the value of what we have been screaming for the last twenty years. Maybe, just maybe, our efforts here in Glasgow are about to show how demand can be tamed with respect to electric power. If so, we will be using our network to manage electric power consumption in individual homes and businesses and that should result in lower costs for our customers.

While the EPB team is fighting to battle demand with respect to electric power, we can’t do much for gasoline and diesel fuel demand other than better manage our own consumption, which I am proud to report we are doing pretty well. We are reorganizing our work habits to reduce fuel consumption. We are working to create efficient routes to tie together all of our appointments every day to reduce fuel consumption. We are idling and getting rid of some of our vehicles. Some of us are walking to work. Others are riding motorcycles and scooters (we have one member of the team who is riding an electric scooter to work!). But the larger impact on demand will come if all of you will respond to the rampant price increases for gasoline by actually changing some of your habits. Here are a few Glasgow-specific changes you can make that will go a long way toward saving you some money personally, and, possibly, costing some of those greedy jerks who are bidding up the price of oil some of their precious funds.

Avoid all drive-up windows. Utilities like the EPB have them. So do banks, fast-food establishments and some pharmacies. All of them have one thing in common. They waste energy. While keeping a window open for fast-food transactions leaks a lot of conditioned air which wastes electric power, the biggest waste at a drive-through is gasoline. The best way to avoid this waste is to refuse to use a drive-through window. With respect to utilities, pay your bills via mail or automatic bank draft. With respect to banks, see if your employer can direct deposit your check to your account. If it is just not possible to avoid the drive-through, consider stopping your vehicle’s engine while you are waiting in line. It takes only about ten seconds worth of fuel to start a modern engine. So, any time you are sitting in line at a drive-through for more than ten seconds, you should kill the engine! That also goes for sitting and talking to someone, leaving your car in the driveway while you “run in” for just a minute, sitting at traffic signals, etc. Any time you are not moving in your vehicle, the engine should be off. Did you know that the popular hybrid vehicles that claim fantastic fuel efficiency gain most of their additional efficiency through simply automatically turning off the engine when the vehicle is stopped? Well, it is true. You can create your own “sort-of” hybrid vehicle then by simply reaching for the off switch when you stop.

Synchronize traffic signals. While we are talking about fuel waste while stopped, we should also talk about Glasgow’s many traffic signals and the way they waste our fuel. This problem really burns my toast. Glasgow is blessed with a robust broadband network available virtually everywhere in town. That means that the network passes right by every traffic signal in town. Those traffic signals are controlled by digital technology located inside a shiny box sitting near every signal. Those boxes contain interfaces which can connect to the broadband network, going right over the top of them. Once connected those signals can be programmed to allow traffic along the main arteries to move along continuously at a predetermined speed, thus using existing roads to move much more traffic without stopping and wasting fuel. But, instead of utilizing the network's capacity to synchronize the signals, our Transportation Cabinet allows each signal to operate on its own. This results in regularly stopping the flow of dozens of vehicles so that one or two can pull out and turn left from a side street. When each intersection acts as if it were an island instead of just a link in the chain of signals and ignores the need to allow traffic on the main line to move along at an assigned pace, the result, as we all experience as we try to move about town, is wasteful stopping and starting at each intersection. It is an outrage that so much technology is readily available and already paid for, but is not used. Rather, we always seem ready to spend $15 million building or expanding a road when $1500 would solve the problem. Now it is true that none of us, acting on our own, can make these connections and calculations to take advantage of this existing technology, but each of us is going to be coming in contact with folks running for local and state offices over the next few months and we can certainly make this an issue with them. This is a simple and inexpensive solution to a big problem that affects each of us every single day and it could dramatically reduce our demand for energy and our frustration.

Walk to work, or work from home. Everyone does not live within a reasonable distance to their work to make walking possible. But it is certain that some do and there is plenty of room on our sidewalks. On the other hand, that same broadband network which is already on every street in town and many streets out of town, can be used to allow you to work from home. If your main responsibilities each day consist of answering phones and interfacing with a computer screen, all you need is a connection to our network and an employer who wants to pitch in to help us reduce our demand for energy. In fact, utilizing our broadband network to reduce transportation costs by working at home might even exceed the value of reducing electric power demand by controlling peak demands. Trips not taken at all will do the most to help us make those fuel speculators miserable.

Shop locally, for locally produced goods
. While buying a tomato at the local Wal Mart is better than driving to Kroger in Bowling Green for that tomato, that is really not the kind of local shopping that will help us reduce our demand for energy. What we need is more transactions where we walk, or car pool to a local farmers market where we purchase tomatoes grown right here in our area. After the purchase, take the food home and cook it outside on the grill (this will save energy because you will not be heating up the air in the house and then asking the air conditioner to lower the temperature again). Those tomatoes at Wal Mart probably traveled 2,000 miles to get here. They look wonderful, but they have been heavily marinated in diesel fuel during their journey and that makes them partners with those fuel speculators that we are wanting to kick in the shins. Buying local goods from local vendors saves energy and makes our community a better place to spend more time in. In a world where we are going to need to travel less because of the cost of fuel, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to make our local communities more attractive? I certainly think so, but that will have to be the subject of subsequent posts to this blog.

It is most important for us all to remember that our situation is not hopeless. Acting together we can begin to prevail against the forces of habit and greed that work together to bind us together in service to the gasoline pump and coal fired electric generator. We need to think globally and act neighborly. Along those lines, there is a great program playing on KET this month that greatly expands upon that philosophy. Author Forum on KET this month features Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy being interviewed by Kentucky's own Wendell Berry. I urge you to look for it and watch it. We are going to record it and make it available on Cable 6 several more times as well or you can follow this link to a web page where you can scroll down to the Bill McKibben link and watch it on-line. It is well worth watching. You also may feel that these suggestions are just too small to have any real effect. When I talk this way to customers and peers in the utility fraternity, I often get the response: "Why bother?" In response to that I strongly suggest that you read an article Why Bother, by Michael Pollan. His response to that question is far more eloquent than anything I might compose.