We can all make a difference

Published 7:30 am Friday, February 9, 2007

By Staff
You don’t have to be a victim of expensive energy bills.
That was part of the message that Heidi Smith brought to low-income residents earlier this week in a program at Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Washington. Smith is the director of public relations with Tideland Electric Membership Corporation and part of her job is to teach people how to conserve power.
You may ask: Why would a utility try to help people not buy their product? In effect, that is part of what Smith’s message was. The answer in part is Tideland is a co-op and structured to provide a service without making a profit. Yet even utilities that are for-profit benefit when it comes to teaching people to conserve power.
Consumers, you and I, have the ability to go out and buy things like electric space heaters at a rate far faster than utilities can provide generation capacity to supply the power to run them. It takes years, sometimes decades, to get the permits and build a power plant. We can run to the store and buy heaters in the matter of minutes.
The other issue is efficiency. In a perfect world for utilities like Tideland and Progress Energy, electricity customers would demand the same number of kilowatt hours every minute of every day. We don’t live in that world. Power demands fluctuate wildly and utility companies can’t control what we demand of them. We have the ability to turn a light switch on or off, but utilities have the responsibility to make sure there is the capacity to run that light.
Utilities can try only and be ready to meet the demand when we need it. If they acquire too much generation capacity they, and their investors, are paying for equipment they don’t use. If they don’t have enough capacity they must go out on the market and pay top dollar for any power they can get. In the worst case, as California saw in the 1990s, there are rolling blackouts because the power isn’t there at any price.
There is yet another reason to educate the public, especially the low-income public , about energy conservation. If a consumer can’t pay his or her bill, the recourse is to shut off the power. If a utility company is left with an unpaid bill, that money must be made up elsewhere, and that means everybody ends up paying the difference.
Smith’s message Wednesday offers hope, even though some people feel powerless. They don’t have to. Small things matter, Smith said. Sealing up small cracks is a start. Outside air can come into a home through outlets on outside walls. “Hold your hand over it and see if you can feel the air,” Smith said. If you can, then foam overlays behind the wall plate can stop the leak. Smith handed those out for free on Wednesday.
In the average home, “when you add up all the hidden air leaks it’s the equivalent of leaving two windows open all year long,” Smith said. “All these little things add up. I tell my kids we all have to pitch in. It’s going to take everybody.”
In the big energy picture, not everybody can buy a hybrid vehicle. Most can’t afford giant power-generating solar panels. Windmill technology remains expensive and has its limits. Yet all of us would be better off if America were not dependent on foreign imports of oil. And who says we can’t be? Even the poorest of the poor can make a difference. Turn off a light if you’re not in the room. Turn down the thermostat in the winter and turn it up in the summer. Spend a dollar on a new air filter and check it at least once a month. Some things may save pennies, but pennies add up to dollars, and over the course of a year those dollars can be significant.
Smith’s presentation Wednesday was to a group that numbered fewer than two dozen people, but the message is to us all. It also falls in line with the mission of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which hosted the event.
Pat Brown, with the society, said offering education is better than just giving financial assistance. “It’s a biblical thing — like teaching them how to fish,” he said. “Everybody’s better off and they feel better about themselves.”