Vampire hour

Lawrence Solomon
FP Comment
March 28, 2009

The every-little-bit-counts crowd behind Earth Hour doesn’t understand the bigger human picture

In the 1970s, when environmentalists like me first began to make headway in touting the benefits of energy conservation (or energy efficiency, as it was also known), our adversaries in the energy industries countered with accusations that conservation meant “freezing in the dark.” We won the debate by showing that energy efficiency improvements didn’t mean hardship, that improved insulation in buildings, computer controls on industrial processes and electricity meters that gave consumers superior information would not only economically replace the need for energy production but also improve the quality of life.

That was then. Now mainstream environmentalists such as World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace are making the energy industry’s case for it through campaigns like Earth Hour — the annual event at which we literally sit in the dark and shut down society to the maximum extent feasible. Earth Hour is smart politics on the part of vested interests such as the energy industry but dim-bulb environmentalism — I can think of no better way to erode the public’s support for energy conservation than to equate it with hardship.

Not surprisingly, the energy industry — whether from guile or, more likely, to appear politically correct — is four square behind Earth Hour. In Canada, Direct Energy, a multinational corporation, is taking the lead, pushing hardship conservation to new levels.

“Earth Hour is a great reason to change your home’s electricity consumption habits and conserve electricity everywhere you can,” said Dave Walton, Director of Home Ideas at Direct Energy, in
taking direct aim at so-called “vampire electronics.”

Vampire electronics refers to devices such as the display on your microwave oven and dishwasher or the control on your cordless phone and computer screens. When not in active use, these devices continue to suck up power, hence the vampire epithet. The typical home, Walton explains, contains as many as 50 of these devices which, in total, consume a lot of power. He wants us to take “common sense” steps to reduce consumption and save money, too.

“How much does the display on my microwave cost me,” I asked Walton.

“About $2.80 a year for a convection microwave,” he estimated, or almost 1¢ a day. By unplugging the microwave at night and replugging it the following day, I could save almost 1¢ worth of power a day. Unplugging other items would save less. A computer LCD monitor “wastes” $1.82, or half a cent a day of power and an electric toothbrush 98¢ a year, or one-third of a cent a day. Turning off one of Walton’s bigger culprits — the family computer — would save about 3¢ a day.

Does Walton really believe that resetting microwave clocks each morning and rebooting the family computer throughout the day to save a pittance of power makes “common sense?” “Every little bit counts,” he counters, as if humans were put on this Earth to be slaves to our equipment, instead
of the other way around. And as if his advice represents an economic benefit for society, rather than a cost.

What so many now pejoratively call vampire electronics often provide vital service at low cost. While we sleep and while we’re away, our programmable thermostat lowers our heating bills and our burglar alarm systems keep real predators away. Our phone sets take messages 24/7, our computers
glide into sleep mode and the LED displays on our bedside clocks let us check the time without turning on the lights. Our smoke detectors and carbon monoxide monitors keep us safe, as do the emergency response systems our elderly increasingly rely on. We should celebrate the silent sentinels that perform yeoman service, in aid of our personal well-being as well as that of the environment and the economy, at wages too trivial to consider.

Such electronics, in fact, represent hope for the future: They form a large part of the ever-improving “smart technologies” that control our power systems to reduce costs, better service, lower needless resource use and enhance the quality of life. While people foolishly turn the lights out during Earth Hour, vampire electronics will selflessly be on duty, working to keep those in the dark safe.

Read a response to this column written by retired professional engineer Vernon Larson

Read Lawrence Solomon’s Bio

Contact Lawrence Solomon

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2 Responses to Vampire hour

  1. Pingback: Instead of Earth Hour | Steve Lafleur

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