Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tis the season... pay big electric bills. Fa La La La La, La La, La, Ouch!

Feel like you need a personal nuclear reactor just to light your Festivus lights? You might not be far from the truth. You face three choices:
  1. Go without in the spirit of being a GreenerGeek
  2. Installing the traditional tiny lights and pay the electric company through the nose
  3. Buying LED lights, paying through the nose for high-tech, and ignore your power bill
In the spirit of reusing our existing traditional lights (avoiding the environmental impact of buying new lights and land-filling these), I did a few power measurements this season. It turns out it is pretty much directly proportional to bulb count.

As an example, our backyard display consists of 6 strands of Garlands wrapped around our deck (1,800 bulbs), and three strands wrapped around a small pine tree (300 bulbs). I measured 420 watts for those 2,100 bulbs, or about 0.2 watts each. Expressed another way, you can divide the bulb count by 5 to come up with the wattage.

Our front display consists of 6 strands of Garlands wrapped around two tall bushes (1,800 bulbs), 15 sets of Net Lights on our bushes (2,250 bulbs), and 2 simple strands outlining Bambi, or fake deer (200 bulbs). I measured the total power consumption of our front yard display (4,250 bulbs) at 855 watts.

Our total homage (6,350 bulbs) to the Chrismahanaquanzika season is a wallet-numbing 1,275 watts per hour, which costs just about $0.25. We run the lights from 4 PM until 10 PM, or 6 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 5 weeks. That means the total cost to run our holiday lights is about $105.

Now let's look at using LED lights.

The good news is that the LED bulb itself lasts much longer. The bad news is that it still uses the same sort of cheap socket connections which quickly fail. You are going to be pulling your hair out year after year keeping your expensive LED light strings working. But at least you won't land-fill them because they cost too much.

Speaking of cost, LED lights run about $50 for a set of 150 bulbs. The bad news is that is 16 times more than I spent on the same number of traditional lights. The good news is costs are coming down each year. Maybe we can afford them in another 5 years?

Well at least LED lights save money on power, right? That's the very good news. Yes they do! They use 1/14th the power. So divide the bulb count by 70 and you will have your power consumption.

So let's compare. My 6,350 traditional bulbs consume 1,275 watts, and cost me $105 to run for the season. If I changed over to LED bulbs, then my power bill would be $13, saving $92. But LED lamps would cost me $2,116 to purchase. Even if the strands lasted 10 years (wildly optimistic given build-quality), I would still be about $1,200 in the hole if I used LED technology.

The real bad news is that current LED technology is just a fun experiment. The economics are not even close to there yet.

Maybe the most green approach would be to use five 200 watt solar panel (an array size of about 8x10 feet) to capture enough sunlight during the day (8 hours) to generate the power used for the lights. That panels would cost about $4,500 and require a $1,500 grid-tied inverter (you sell the power to the electric company during the day, and draw power from the grid at night to run your lights). So for $6,000 out of pocket, you can offset your $105 power bill for your lights (and put another $900 or so in your pocket during the rest of the year).

Of course those solar panels will generate zero power if we have a white Christmas -- Bah humbug!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wait, wait, help me understand...

With the Big Three begging for money from Congress, I have seen many folks publishing comments along the lines that the American car producers need to build tiny, inexpensive fuel efficient cars that "Americans want".

Wait, wait, help me understand. As I recall that is EXACTLY what they were doing in the past, making large SUVs and trucks to the tune of 16 million units per year (record breaking sales). The further reality is that with the energy costs on the upward side of the spiral and a credit market crisis, Americans actually are buying NO cars of any kind. How exactly does this translate into the Big Three needing to build crappy econo-boxes in order to survive?

True, to survive they must build cars that Americans want to drive, but extrapolating that to mean tiny gas sippers is ridiculous. Detroit has tried that numerous times and found out that Americans don't buy small gas sippers from American car companies, only from Nissan, Toyota, Kia, etc. Those companies, unencumbered by labor unions and benefit costs (health care and pensions for retirees) are in a much better position to be able to make a profit on small cars that American manufacturers ever will be (unless they go bankrupt and shed their contracts and liabilities).

The ONLY way for American car companies to survive is to rapidly retool themselves to make mid-size and large cars that Americans will buy. That means they will need to dramatically increase the fuel economy of those cars to be positioned for the next upward energy spike (which will be back within a few years). And to do that they need to be developing entire families of plug-hybrid vehicles. Something like the Volt is a baby-step in the right direction, but needs to be sold at 10 times the volume GM is planning (which would help to reduce the absurd $20K premium the Volt is expected to cost over a traditional power-train). Detroit needs to be bold and do this across the board -- in all makes and models -- in order to differentiate themselves from other producers.

If tiny econo-boxes are what Americans want, then write off the big three today and end the suffering now.

Ah, sweet relief !

National Grid, the company that supplies electricity to Rhode Island, has filed for a rate DECREASE. The current rate for delivered electricity is 19 cents per KWh. Effective January 1, that rate will decrease to 16.1 cents. Perhaps that will remove RI from the dubious distinction of having the highest rate in the country? Of course other states will probably be following in RI's footsteps, so we shall see.

This cut will save the average electrical consumer about $13 per month, and comes despite the fact that RI power suppliers generate very little of their electricity from oil. (Suppliers have a clause that ties the value of their energy to the price of oil and gas. So as oil and gas go up or down, so would the value of solar or wind.)

Finally, the retail cost of gasoline continues to drop, having reached $1.79 per gallon right before Thanksgiving. With crude prices below $45 a barrel (gasoline at $1.05 wholesale), I suspect that gasoline will be at $1.50 or less per gallon by the new year. That said, the New England area is transitioning over from gasoline storage to heating oil, which means the price of gasoline may not drop as low as it will in other parts of the country due to reduced supply in the region.