Us: the other energy source

By Bob Lindholm

A couple of years ago a National Public Radio caller asked Click and Clack, the “Car Talk” guys, how many miles over the speed limit he could go without running afoul of the law for speeding. As they usually do before giving an answer, they joked with the caller for a couple of minutes, then passed on this pearl of car wisdom: “about an extra five miles an hour.”
But then the duo had a question for the caller: What is your usual highway speed? The man answered, with what seemed a bit of pride, 85 to 90 mph. After a moment of silence, the radio hosts asked: Do you know what you are doing to your gas mileage at those speeds? They went on to explain that speed and fuel consumption do not change at an equal pace; the difference is an exponential decrease in gas mileage as speed increases. You and I have probably noticed this loss when driving into a strong head wind – it eats up the gas and the car has to work harder.
This story illustrates one of the myriad small ways we can all save energy as individuals to improve energy efficiency and conservation. As a society Americans have usually addressed problems by searching for big solutions, and our huge power plants are examples. They are big on production, but they create other problems, such as climate change, so now we are beginning to look for alternate and renewable energy sources to fight the consequences of global warming. We’ve probably all seen lists of ways individuals can save energy, but until energy became a critical issue, such measures seemed a bother so we probably ignored them. It’s time to take another look.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times recently reported on a hearing in our nation’s capital on what, he said, should be a critical component of the nation’s energy strategy: “the powerful combination of efficiency and conservation.” The strategy got very little attention, even though it is “the fastest, easiest and cleanest step toward a sane energy environment – a step available to all of us immediately …”
Obviously efficiency and conservation are only a part of the solution, but they are steps we all can take now. Many of the big solutions to produce more energy require construction and other time-consuming steps before production comes online, such as the reported five to 10 years to bring the oil from offshore drilling to the pumps. And we know this oil is not an endless supply.
Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy called increased energy efficiency “the real low-hanging fruit in our economy.” The Times article lists some of the things consumers can do now that would help: carpooling, taking public transportation when possible, dropping the thermostat a few degrees, buying more efficient appliances, unplugging appliances that aren’t in use. Here are a few more examples:
• Author Wendy Williams noted that in 2006 Americans bought 32.6 billion single-servings of bottled drinking water. The Container Recycling Institute estimates fewer than 20 percent of these plastic bottles are recycled, and every year we use 27 million barrels of oil to make more bottles, even though an estimated 25 to 40 percent of bottled water comes from public drinking reservoirs – tap water.
• The Transportation Institute reported higher gas prices resulted in changes in our driving behavior and a decline in traffic fatalities because drivers were slowing down and cutting nonessential trips to save gas. Sen. John Warner of Virginia recently cited studies showing “the 55 mph speed limit saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day, or 2 percent of the country’s highway fuel consumption, while avoiding up to 4,000 traffic deaths a year.”
• The book “How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: 365 Simple Ways to Save Energy, Resources, and Money” by Joanna Yarrow recommends planting more trees as a way to conserve energy, because one tree can absorb more than a ton of CO2 in its lifespan, and when it dies, plant another one.
• Westar Energy suggests turning off every electrical device when not in use. Turn the thermostat down in winter to 68 to 70 degrees, and at night turn it down 5 to 8 degrees more. Westar also recommends replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents because they last longer and use two-thirds less energy – the bulbs’ package tells how much less energy they use. Remember all the times you waited for an incandescent bulb to cool off? That was wasted energy in the form of heat. For more energy-saving tips, visit WestarEnergy.com or call 800-383-1183.
• Kansas City Power and Light publishes a booklet titled “Simple Ways to Save Energy,” and you can call 800-471-5275 for a copy. Among the many listed suggestions: Use workspace lighting for a defined area instead of lighting a whole room. And as we’ve all been reminded since childhood, turn off the lights when leaving a room. Can we teach our kids to do this and learn better now in the process? The booklet also recommends lowering the thermostat in the winter because each degree above 68 degrees adds 3 percent to the energy need; in the summer each added degree for cooling costs about 3 percent more per degree. Small holes or loose seals in heating and cooling ducts can add up to 30 percent lost energy.
• The Coastal Conservation League in Charleston, S.C., is another good source of energy savings information, 843-725-2063, and so is your local power company.
• More energy-conserving driving tips: Brian Haden, an automotive technology instructor at Salina Tech in Kansas, says a lead foot on the accelerator lightens your wallet and has an enormous effect on fuel consumption, given the huge number of cars on the road in the U.S. By slowing down, he says, the average car driver can improve fuel mileage by 14 to 20 percent. He advises drivers to maintain the recommended tire pressure, and watch traffic flow ahead to avoid stop-and-start driving. And instead of spending time idling in a fast food drive-through line, turn off the engine, park and walk inside.
• Buying a car that averages more than 40 miles per gallon instead of 20.7 miles per gallon – the average of all U.S. passenger cars in 1989 – would save almost 40 billion gallons of gas in just one year, according to Jim Minick of Radford University in Virginia.
The Consumer Federation of America reported most Americans greatly overestimate domestic oil reserves and the ability to substantially increase production, according to a 2007 Cox News Service report. Fifty-five percent of Americans polled mistakenly believe the nation holds more than 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves when in fact it is less that 3 percent. So we need all the help we can get to conserve energy. Even though most of the small steps individuals take may seem small, when added up they can be significant. So let’s start now. ◊
Bob Lindholm of Lindsborg, Kan., produces photographic articles and exhibits on conservation and natural resource protection. He was given the Jade of Chiefs Award in 2006.
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