I don't chastise my children for leaving lights on in our house. They're much too young to understand energy use and conservation, and probably won't come to appreciate these points for several years. But there's another reason why I allow the lights to stay on. They heat the house.
Much of what passes for energy conservation is wrong-headed in a place like Juneau. The reason is simple: A watt is a watt, no matter how it's used.
Electricity produces heat. To be precise, one watt of electricity produces approximately 3.414 British Thermal Units of heat per hour. This is apparently true regardless of how that watt is used. A thousand-watt electric resistance heater produces 3,414 BTUs of heat. A 13-watt compact florescent bulb produces more than 44 BTUs. An 800-watt refrigerator throws off 2,731 BTUs.
Honest, well-intentioned people tell us to turn off lights and unused appliances to conserve electricity. What these people fail to tell us is that, in a climate where buildings require heat all through the year, there is no such thing as an unused watt. Every watt consumed indoors adds heat.
For every light or appliance that is not in use within a heated building, the heating system has to make up the difference. There is no net energy savings, merely a redistribution of how that heat is produced.
Our current home was built just before the oil embargo in the early 1970s, an era when nobody gave much thought toward energy usage. There was no insulation under the floors when we moved in, no wrapping on the pipes for the baseboard heaters, and only two inches of fiberglass in the walls. Our home was, and is, an energy hog.
But our home is not quite the hog it used to be. When our oil-fired boiler quit working last spring we removed the entire heating system, pipes and all, and put in electric heat. We sealed all the holes in the floor - dozens of them - and installed insulation under the floors. We also installed a woodstove insert after realizing that the open fireplace drew more hot air out of the house than it radiated back in.
By comparing our power bills now versus a year ago, I've determined that we've cut our home energy requirements by about 25 percent. This doesn't include the woodstove insert, the additional use of which cuts our winter electric usage substantially.
In truth, the time and effort involved in cutting, storing and otherwise handling wood doesn't save as much money as I could earn in most paying jobs, not yet anyway. Having said that, we have a lot of trees on our property, we have to do something with the wood that does come down, and I like the exercise. There's also nothing quite like a warm fire to cozy up when I'm chilled.
Between the insulation upgrades and the woodstove insert, our electric bill this winter was half of what we paid for oil and electricity the year before. We stayed just as warm too, even warmer when the insert was in use.
We're planning several more upgrades. We'll insulate the exterior walls. The cathedral ceiling above our living room will get extra insulation. Several of our windows will get swapped out with newer, more efficient models. We also are contemplating a geothermal heating system. All of these jobs will be huge and expensive.
These upgrades will all reduce our energy requirements. The savings in our power bill will add up over time, and the improvements will add to the value of our house. Consider the alternative: If we don't pay to reduce our energy requirements, we'll continue to pay for the extra energy our home requires.
The cost of oil heat now exceeds the cost of heating with electricity, even after accounting for the surcharges imposed by AEL&P this winter. Since the price of oil is unlikely to go down, the home heating equation is likely to continue favoring electricity as long as Juneau continues getting the majority of its power through hydroelectric generation.
These little lights of mine, I'm gonna let 'em shine. My kids like it that way. So do I. It keeps things bright and cheery, at no additional cost.
Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.
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