EACH YEAR as the calendar moves into the New Year, I find myself thinking about Dick Cheney. The vice president once called energy conservation a “matter of personal virtue,” not part of a national energy plan.
It was a backhanded compliment, likening people who practiced conservation to some quaint religious sect — pious but outside the American mainstream.
But just a few years later, public opinion polls show that Americans view energy conservation as patriotic. It’s something we do to preserve our way of life, not lose it.
Mr. Cheney is right, though. Conservation is virtuous. It’s what my parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, call being thrifty. They raised seven kids on a pipe coverer’s wages and sent them all to college through their thrifty approach to managing cash-an envelope for groceries, one for bread and milk, another for incidentals, another for things we kids needed. We lived pretty well for a working class family, and my parents retired young, all thanks to thrift.
Energy conservation offers the same kind of thrift. You save to enhance your life, not yuk it up. In reality, a lot of energy produced in the United States is not used at all-it’s wasted like produce forgotten in the fridge. Here are a few examples from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Your television uses more electricity during the hours it’s turned off than the time when it’s turned on. If you watch TV four hours each night, your set actually draws slightly more energy during the other 20 hours each day because modern TVs idle in standby mode. That way the picture lights up instantaneously when you turn it on, rather than taking a couple of seconds to warm up. This slow draw on your power is called vampire energy.
If you can live with a two-second warm-up, you can save a lot of energy and not miss a single show. Those little clocks on microwaves and VCRs are another example-they suck energy without adding to your quality of life.
An outlet with an on-off switch or a power strip is all you need to eliminate phantom energy drain-even if you just turn all this stuff off at bedtime, you’ll save a lot.
Your washing machine uses 90 percent of its energy to make hot water. Says the DOE: Unless you’re dealing with oily stains, the warm or cold water setting on your machine will generally do a good job of cleaning your clothes.
Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load’s energy use in half. Energy saved; way of life intact.
About 20 percent of your house’s electricity goes to indoor lighting. Just using more efficient bulbs can save 50 to 75 percent on energy usage. Same amount of light-no cramp on your way of life.
For outdoor lighting, common sense saves even more energy. That’s because most outdoor lighting does a better job of lighting up the sky than the ground or sidewalk.
And the big myth about outdoor lighting is that it deters crime. Evidence, some of it from the U.S. Department of Justice, suggests otherwise. DOJ found no statistical correlation between street lighting and crime. In San Antonio law enforcement officials have found that darkening the area around public schools had the direct effect of lowering the vandalism rate. Since they reduced the level of lighting on schools, the annual cost of repairs due to vandalism went down from $160,000 to $41,000.
Why the difference between conventional wisdom and reality? Without getting too technical, it boils down to two things. First, the human eye can differentiate only so much contrast between darkness and bright light.
When night lighting is too bright, as it usually is in shopping centers and car dealerships, the eye is literally blinded by light. And because a brightly lighted parking area usually lies between “protected” stores and, say, a police cruiser on rounds out on the road, it can be impossible for police to see criminals standing right in front of a shop.
Full cut-off lighting fixtures point the light on the subject, not up in the sky. Using the right fixtures cuts crime and save energy-and they cost less to operate but cost the same to buy as other lights. In short, saving energy preserves our way of life.
This list of examples goes on and on. So as we ponder a new year, ponder this: Personal virtue, national energy policy, and old-fashioned American thrift go hand in hand.
David Lillard is co-editor of Blue Ridge Press and he turns off the lights when he leaves the room. To comment, e-mail us at