East Tennessee vs. Earth: Energy Consumption

How we're creating our own pollution problems by wasteful electricity usage

Ah, another Earth Day. Time for feel-good features on the local news about greenways or compost or community gardens. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Legislature can't even bring itself to vote on a bill against mountaintop-removal mining, the U.S. Senate is dragging its heels on carbon-emissions cap-and-trade legislation, and East Tennesseans are driving our gas-guzzling cars and stoking our coal-fired power plants more enthusiastically than ever. So forgive us for passing on the usual green-colored glasses. This year, we decided to look at some of the things we're still doing to despoil our little patch of planet, and what we should be doing about them: Transportation, Power Production, Energy Consumption, and Growth and Development.


The Problem:

Tennesseans are used to seeing their state near the bottom of rankings, but we are above average when it comes to consuming energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration ranks Tennessee 18th in per capita energy use, at 379 million Btu. According to a recent Georgia Tech study, Tennessee is home to 2.1 percent of Americans but accounts for 2.3 percent of national energy use. Regional studies show the Southeast uses more energy than other regions, and the main reason is that it takes more energy to cool a home than to heat one.

Among Southeastern states, Tennessee is about average. Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky use more energy per capita. We are about tied with South Carolina. Virginia and Georgia hover near the national average, and North Carolina and Florida are actually below average.

Worst Offender:

Us. We all have to use energy, but we don't have to waste it. The difference is efficiency. Our devices have gotten more efficient over the years, yet per capita energy consumption has held steady since about 1980. Apparently, we compensate for efficiency improvements by using more stuff more often. The added consumption is not entirely our fault, however. Some of our gadgets don't actually turn off when we shut them down. Instead, they enter a low-power state and consume what is referred to as "phantom power."

This used to be such a big problem with televisions that EPA's Energy Star program rated TVs only based on how much power they consumed while off. Most of this power kept the screen warmed up, ready to display a picture as soon as you turned it on. Fortunately, cathode ray tubes are becoming obsolete, replaced by LCD, plasma and now LED technologies. Energy Star's threshold of 1 Watt per hour of phantom power has also become obsolete, because virtually all televisions manufactured today meet the standard. Starting next month, Energy Star will rate TVs according to their operating power, so the logo will appear on fewer new screens and once again be useful to consumers.

Even though new televisions are more efficient, owners pay a similar amount because screens have gotten bigger. Manufacturers also ramp up your electric bill by setting factory defaults at or near maximum power. Ideal picture quality depends on how dark the room is and may be well below maximum brightness. Some new TVs sense light levels and adjust their output automatically, and you can reduce your television's power consumption by trimming the contrast and picture level and darkening the room while you watch.

Plasma screens use considerably more power than LCD TVs, but it is often peripheral devices that cost most to operate. Some need to be on all the time, and most have clocks. They may also consume phantom power to stay in ready mode. Video game consoles consume about as much power as a television, except for the Wii, which operates at 1/10th the power. Tricked-out entertainment centers can consume more power than a modern refrigerator and cost more than $100 over a year.

The most powerful machine in your home is the stove, though air conditioners may run at similar wattages. Clothes dryers and water heaters are also big power consumers. Microwave ovens use only about an eighth the power of a stove but can only cook small amounts. Crock pots are an efficient way to cook with electricity. The most energy-efficient way to cook is over gas burners.

Washing machines consume only a quarter of the power a dryer uses.

What We're Doing About It:

When we use power for basic necessities like food, warmth and cleanliness, the benefit justifies the consumption, but we also use energy for more frivolous and avoidable reasons.

When you gauge value delivered against power consumed, incandescent light bulbs were stunningly inefficient devices. Their obsolescence in favor of compact fluorescents and now LED bulbs has been a major step forward in cutting waste.

Economy-minded energy consumers often turn to a clothes line or rack as an alternative to dryer loads. Lightweight fabrics dry rapidly on sunny days, even in winter, with humidity being more important than temperature. Scheduling your clothes washing with an eye on the weather forecast can save hundreds of dollars over a year.

By hand washing singular items like cook pots and knives and using the dishwasher for plates, cutlery and things it takes a while to run out of, you can do fewer loads. The economic shock we are going through has forced more people to be aware of the power their devices use and more mindful of how they use them.

Federal tax incentives for weatherization projects and upgrades of major appliances have made it more affordable than ever to create a more efficient home and smaller utility bills.

What We Should We Be Doing:

The traditional electric water heater ought to be extinct. You may be paying $500 per year for hot water, so more efficient systems pay for themselves quickly. Unfortunately, few plumbers know how to install solar water heaters, so costs have never dropped like they would in an active market. Tankless heaters consume less power than traditional water heaters, but these technologies too are being adopted slowly.

Some of the most wasteful use of energy occurs in the commercial sector, where lights burn bright and thermostats defy the seasons. As consumers, we can put pressure on businesses to moderate their energy use.

Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is lobbying for federal energy legislation to include strong incentives for energy efficiency, which it says could save American families $434 per year while creating green-collar jobs. Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America says, "It's time for senators to view energy efficiency as a cornerstone of the nation's climate and energy policy."

Engineers always aim for more efficient designs, but our best weapon against wasted energy is the choice to turn things down or turn them off.