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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Page Two

A few days ago I was shopping in a local business when I noticed some folks examining a smartly styled electric space heater. “This is the one Paul Harvey talks about,” one of the anxious shoppers remarked. “Yes,” replied a bystander, “it is supposed to keep the whole house warm and save you more than 50% on your electric bill.” Now that attracted my full attention. I had not heard Paul Harvey making this proclamation, but I was intrigued. The heater was handsome and it had some very cool looking lights and dials. It even had a remote control! However, when I spun it around to look at the UL label it clearly stated that it was a 1500 watt device. This was a $400, 1500 watt electric heater. Nearby were dozens of other 1500 watt electric heaters, and most of them were about $60, and I can assure you that both will do exactly the same thing. Sadly, no matter what Paul Harvey says, a 1500 watt heater is a 1500 watt heater, at least so far as the cost of operating it goes. I felt bad for the excited shoppers. I felt worse for the scores of folks who might have been romanced by the remote control and the flashing lights on the $400 unit, because they are going to be disappointed when they get their electric bill.

A 1500-watt electric heater, whether it cost $400 or $60, is going to consume 1.5 kWh of electric power each hour that it runs. At today’s inflated cost of electric power that translates into fifteen cents for each hour the heater is running. So, if you are trying to save money by turning back the thermostat on your central heat and using one of these space heaters for the room you spend most of your time in, just running the 1500 watt heater could cost more than $100 per month! If this is going to save you 50% on your heating bill, well, you would likely have to be maintaining the rest of your house at about 55 degrees or so. I hope you realize this is not likely to happen. I wish that was not the case, but the laws of thermodynamics are not alterable, even by a kindly old gentleman like Paul Harvey.

Clearly, folks are looking to believe in something that will give them some relief from the high cost of electricity. If it isn’t the Paul Harvey heater, then the attraction of the “Amish fireplace” must be the answer (sorry, but look closely at those full page advertisements as well . . . the Amish fireplace is just another 1500 watt electric heater). But the truth is there is no technology that is going to change the fact that electric energy is very expensive in 2009 and it is likely to climb even higher.

Why has this happened? Well, this scenario has been developing for several decades. To a large extent, energy is expensive today because it was too cheap for many years. Cheap electric power caused us all to use it carelessly. At our homes we have piled up electronic gear, televisions, computers, video game consoles, DVD players and other appliances use spiraling amounts of power. In our communities, we have demanded, and received, a steady progression of big box retail stores which demand staggering amounts of electric power. Regionally, we have invited, and welcomed many large industrial facilities that consume unbelievable volumes of electric power. For example, a new facility recently announced near Clarksville, Tennessee, will demand more electric power than five Glasgow’s! While all of these loads have drastically increased our net need for electricity, the cost of building and operating new power generation facilities has skyrocketed. So, our present cost of electric power is a direct descendent of our wishes. My mother used to warn me to “be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.” My mother was right. We wished for constant growth, and we got it. Now, the cost of electric power is demonstrating the folly of our old assumption that all growth is good.

It is also not just our history that is driving up the cost of electric power. Our present has a lot to do with it as well. Surely you have heard about TVA’s massive spill of coal ash from the Kingston Steam Plant into the Clinch River. The cost of cleaning up that mess will likely exceed a billion dollars, and every bit of that cost will wind up on our electric bills. Our Congress is also very likely to implement new restrictions on all coal burning power plants. While I am certainly in agreement that we must reduce the amount of CO2 we are dumping into our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuel, there is no way to do this without adding additional cost to each kWh that we consume.

But there are some bright spots in our energy future. Suddenly we have a president who is extolling the virtues of converting our electric power delivery systems to “smart grids.” At the same time, TVA is now actually talking about the virtue of the “infotricity” network that we have been shouting about for twenty years. Perhaps the planets are lining up for us to finally be able to use our broadband network to change the way we use electric power, and that could result in us learning how to actually reduce the amount of power that needs to be generated. In time, this may actually reduce the cost of a kWh of electric power. But, in the short term, the cost of electricity is high and the consumption of a 1500 watt heater is going to be 1.5 kWh per hour . .n . and THAT is the rest of the story!

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