Posts Tagged ‘Electricity’

Why is it that the folks who want us to air-dry our laundry (rather than tossing it in an energy-slurping machine) have their own movement? There are, for example, no equivalent advocacy groups telling us to inflate our car tires to the proper levels, or drive the speed limit. Those simple steps would arguably save much more energy, yet they just don’t generate the same passion.

Project Laundry List, with the sole mission of promoting the air-drying and cold-water washing of clothing, has even waged battle in the courts to protect the right of Americans everywhere to hang out their nighties. The result is that a number of states, including Maine, have Right to Dry laws prohibiting the passage of anti-clothesline regulations.

What is it about clotheslines that generates all this intense activity?

For starters, hanging the laundry is, for many of us, a truly delightful task. And, like all devotees of this or that, we are convinced that others would love it too, if they would only give it a chance.

What, afterall, could be more fun than pinning reds, oranges, and purples side by side against a summer sky? Air drying laundry is an excuse to step outside for a moment, engage in an enjoyably physical, but not overly onerous activity, save money, help the environment, and get the chores done all at the same time. This is something people can get excited about.

In contrast, dumping the clothes in the basement dryer, is just another random bit of time-slurping, money-slurping daily drudgery.

Of course there will be some particularly hard-hearted among us that will fail to be moved by the virtuous sunny glow emanating from air-dried clothes. For them, I must cite the facts.

Clothes dryers use more energy than any other appliance in a typical house, save the refrigerator and clothes washer. When the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant was supplying our grid, its full output would just meet the energy needed for everyone in the state to run their dryers at the same time. In the words of a friend, “Imagine that: we can dry our clothes with a nuclear power plant, or with the free energy already in our homes!”

In addition to using lots of electricity, the dryer also, in a sneaky back-handed sort of way, raises your winter heating bills. When dryers blow hot air out of your house, cold air is pulled in to replace it. The effect is the equivalent of leaving a window wide open for the entire time the dryer is running.

Speaking of winter, you can still air dry your clothes on a folding drying rack placed pretty much anywhere in your house. We hang our laundry in the basement near the oil burner. My parents hang laundry in their bedroom, which, they say, humidifies the dry, skin-cracking winter air so perfectly, that when they are all caught up on laundry they wet clean towels and hang them instead.

The average Mainer spends about $145 per year running the clothes dryer (assuming 5 loads per week dried in an electric dryer at a cost of $0.15 per kWh)–not a trivial amount of extra cash to have on hand at the end of the year. On top of that, dryers significantly shorten the longevity of clothing by stripping away fibers with every cycle, essentially nibbling fabrics to death.

But the passions stirred by laundry lines are not all positive. For many, laundry lines are not just unsightly, but they invoke the impoverished past in which folks hung out their laundry, for all to see, because they had no other choice. Clotheslines are a highly visible reminder of the harder, darker world from which our grandparents toiled their way out.

This anti-clothesline bias is so pervasive that laws prohibiting laundry lines (and often solar panels as well) appear as standard boilerplate content in many housing development contracts. That is, without anyone lifting a finger, or even necessarily caring about the issue, the default setting is to prohibit laundry lines.

As a culture we’re always balancing conflicts between individual rights and collective rights, otherwise known as the public good. We’re all familiar with discussions such as whether the right to play loud music infringes on the rights of neighbors to have peace.

But now we’re on slightly new ground. Does there exist some collective right to protect the climate? Might the environmental benefits of air drying laundry in the backyard, or installing solar panels on the roof, trump the rights of others to live in a community where these are not allowed?

The debate in the Maine legislature revolved around just these issues. On the one hand, it was argued, why shouldn’t someone be allowed to buy into a development that prohibits clotheslines? What gives the legislature the authority to tell a homeowners association that they can’t ban laundry lines?

The counter-arguments were largely environmental. Legislators focused on the pressing need for us to reduce our energy use. One legislator commented that our dirtiest power plants come on line only to meet peak electricity demand on the hottest summer days — something that might be avoided by allowing more people to line dry clothes and install solar panels.

Negative attitudes about clotheslines are cultural; only 4% of Italians own clothes dryers. There is nothing inherently noxious about clean laundry flapping in the breeze. It doesn’t stay up late singing show tunes, it doesn’t smell bad, it doesn’t blow onto your property like the fumey growl from a nearby lawn mower or the toxic mist from a pesticide application.

Drying clothes outside is also one of the tiny actions that keep us tied directly to the natural world. When it’s raining my laundry piles up. When it’s sunny, I put in a load before I sit down to breakfast and it’s ready to hang before I head out.

We sever these lines at our peril.

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Permit me to begin with a metaphorical (but true) tale about a chicken.  In my early twenties, shortly after I started cooking for myself, I visited some relatives living on a farm in Denmark.  Thinking I would prepare a meal for them, I brought along a recipe for one of the few dishes I had mastered: a simple chicken stir-fry.

My aunt offered to gather the ingredients.  I knew something was terribly wrong when I headed for the kitchen to get started and she called out, “The chicken is in the sink; I plucked it for you.  Will you be needing the neck?” 

My stir-fry called for boneless, skinless chicken breast–you know, the kind that comes wrapped in cellophane.  As far as I could see, the thing with its chopped neck still bleeding in the sink had nothing whatsoever to do with chicken.  And so the meal I was supposed to cook for my family turned into the meal where I swallowed my pride, and my disgust, and scrubbed potatoes while my aunt cooked the chicken, laughing her head off. 


Americans are notoriously in the dark about where their food comes from (although we Mainers know a bit more about farming than most).  But Mainers can claim no intimacy with where electricity comes from.  It’s true that we know something about hydroelectric dams, but we simply can’t imagine the realities of mining and processing coal – the raw power behind over half the nations’ electricity.  Our electricity comes skinned, de-boned, and neatly wrapped in cellophane.


The real story about electricity is, I think, especially hard to fathom because what it delivers is so helpful, so bright and so clean.  It’s light in the dark, it’s dishes that wash themselves, it’s ice in summer, and it’s live-saving medical equipment.  It serves us quietly, with no fuss: just a tangle of wires and a mysterious monthly bill.  


Why mysterious?  Consider this: How many of us know what a kilowatt hour (kWh) is?  How many can read an electric meter?  How many know what our dehumidifiers cost to run?  Or that some TVs can use as much electricity as a refrigerator?


Contrast this ethereal substance with gasoline.  Like all self-respecting vices, gasoline lets you know that it’s nasty.  It looks nasty.  It stinks, it smogs, and it exacerbates our kids’ asthma.  We must constantly refill it, we know exactly what we are paying for and how it will get used up.  We know we are buying gas guzzlers when we buy them.  Spilled oil is an environmental hazard, but what happens to spilled electricity?


We could stand to put some more thought into electricity.  It costs the average Maine household $1,000 a year.  Pocket change this is not, nor are the environmental impacts of generating it.


In the case of coal, the bleeding chicken in the sink this: coal-fired power plants are possibly the largest obstacle we face to avoiding catastrophic climate change.  They are the biggest single contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, and the United States is poised to build more.  Yet they are so damaging that, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, even one additional plant is of grave concern.  


And who up here in Maine could imagine that the last few decades of mining coal in Appalachia has meant bulldozing and blasting the tops off hundreds of mountains (several ridges a week at the current rate), utterly devastating over a half million acres of forest, and burying over 1,000 miles of valley streams?  


Single mines cover thousands of acres.  Silos and impoundments holding back lakes of toxic sludge sit perched above hundreds of communities, and in one case, just 300 feet from an elementary school.  Is that dangerous?  Last month, a coal sludge impoundment ruptured in Tennessee, poisoning forests, rivers, and homes with more than a billion gallons of toxic goop.  


Fortunately (or perversely, depending on your perspective), a lot of electricity is wasted without providing any service to anyone–curtailing this waste offers us some easy opportunities to dramatically reduce use.  


Our own household, much to my surprise, was able to drop our electric usage by 25% with no significant investment of time, money, or hardship.  We already had an efficient fridge, hung our laundry, turned off lights (mostly), and had efficient bulbs in our primary light fixtures.  What else was there?  


First, we gradually switched all our remaining bulbs to compact fluorescents, which use about 70% less energy.  


Second, we plugged our TV/VCR and computer/printer/modem into two power strips that we turn off when not in use.  Most home electronics draw small but significant amounts of energy even when turned off .  Efficiency Maine reports that this “phantom load” slurps up 75% of the juice used by these gadgets.


Third, we became progressively more compulsive about turning off lights in unoccupied rooms.


All we really did was to stop paying for electricity we were not benefitting from.  Here is a graph of our power consumption.  (The bar on the left is the average annual electricity use for a Maine household.)  We now spend $160 a year less than we did in 2004, and our monthly bill is about $40.  




Electricity in Maine comes largely from gas and oil-fired power plants, which, although not as bad as coal, both make significant contributions to global warming.  For a few cents more per kWh, Mainers can buy electricity generated by emissions-free wind and hydro power through Maine Interfaith Power and Light (http://www.meipl.org/ or (207) 721-0444)).


What if Mainers led the way in reducing electricity demand and switching to renewables?  We can, and should, inspire our fellow citizens to turn off the lights and change our light bulbs.  And maybe school children in the poorest part of Appalachia can have some purple mountains majesty in their backyards rather than a new coal sludge silo.

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