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Get Out Your Electric Bill, Then Get Out and Vote

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By David Biello | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: Dana Robinson (CC).

Do you have any idea how much energy you consume? It's pretty simple to get a sense of how much electricity you use via the monthly bill, but it's not so easy to track down the specific gadgets that are causing the total to rise or fall. It's pretty easy to understand how much gasoline you've burned, but it's harder to grasp how tire pressure affects the total.

If we can't even keep track of how many calories we eat on a daily basis (witness our expanding waistlines as a nation), we're definitely in the dark when it comes to keeping track of how many kilowatt-hours we need to sustain our lifestyles.

Just think of the embedded energy hidden in everything we touch. The clothes you wear bear the energy cost of the fertilizer used to grow the cotton, the sewing machines powered to stitch the latest fashions, and the bunker fuel burned to ship those clothes across the ocean.

The shampoo you rely on to ensure your luster is essentially crude oil, transformed with energy into a cleaning product. Your house required a literal boatload of fossil fuels to build—whether it was built last week or a century ago. And let's not forget those smartphones, which boast more mined precious metals than many a king had access to in medieval times.

Changing our energy intensive lifestyles is not the work of a moment. But the first step is understanding roughly how much energy you use—because it really does vary from person to person. Love your hair dryer? Then you probably use a lot of electricity. Love your hair shirt? Then you probably prefer candles handmade from beef tallow for your lighting needs.

We can and should all do our part, but it takes a government to really get a handle on energy.

The simplest way to understand your energy use is to start with your electric and fuel bills. (Prominent attempts at more detailed consumer analysis, such as Microsoft's Hohm and Google's PowerMeter, have gone defunct.* It turns out there's not much interest in these things—we just want the lights to turn on when we flick the switch.) Add it all up and see where you stand: The average American uses 250 kilowatt-hours of energy per day. That's equivalent to 250 40-watt lightbulbs switched on—all the time. Surely you can do better than that?

I'm not going to tell you to buy efficient lightbulbs, insulate your attic, or even turn off the lights when you leave a room. You should be doing that already and, frankly, that's not going to get us where we need to go. No, the most important thing you can do to be sustainable about your energy use is: Vote.

I'll go further. You should be harassing your political representatives at the local, state, and national level to set aggressive clean energy and efficiency policies of some kind.

Why? Californians have managed to hold electricity use per person at the same level for the past couple of decades despite adding more and more gadgets and more and more people to the Golden State. How? They did it through government regulations like mandates for energy efficiency at power plants, and standards for appliances like refrigerators.

To reduce greenhouse gas pollution by at least 80 percent by 2050 while promoting energy security and, while we're at it, preserving the American economy, we're going to need every tool in the toolkit. We can and should all do our part, but it takes a government to really get a handle on energy.

* CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the energy analysis company WattzOn had also gone defunct, whereas they had simply moved their website, making them harder to find. See the comments section below for the company's response.


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Read More: Culture, Democracy, Energy, Environment, Food, Innovation, Science, Sustainability, Technology, United States, Americas, Global

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