Climate

Collected writings on climate:

A VIEW FROM MY WINDOW

First published at planetprinceton.com, Feb. 28, 2012


Two different views of the future are visible from my house. Through the back window, I can see children playing hide and seek with their parents in a Princeton borough park. Everything about the pocket park is tailored to provide a secure place for kids to develop their bodies and spirits.
Out the front window, a steady stream of cars ply Harrison Street, running an endless variety of errands. The cars are designed for safety; the speed limit is enforced. And yet something is completely out of control — something unseen but very real — that is undermining any secure future we wish for those children in the park.
Most people realize something is up. New Jersey’s climate has changed. Increasingly destructive storms, thirteen warmer-than-normal months in a row — these are not a fluke. And though each new year may not be warmer and more volatile than the last, the trend is clear. Talk of sustainability is in the warming air, and a few spirited projects whittle at the edges of our consumerist lifestyles. But our comfort and prosperity still rest on a pillar of fuels whose carbon we daily take from safe underground storage and liberate up into the air, there to mingle in a slow crescendo of mischief.
In town, thoughts on changing climate may not go beyond gratitude for mild winter days and less snow to shovel. I can feel that same relief, but in Princeton any false comfort with comfort can be quickly erased by venturing across Nassau St. onto campus to hear a lecture by a prominent climate scientist. Beneath all the customary caution of science, the question appears to be not whether the climate will undergo extraordinary change, but whether events will spiral beyond control.
My understanding, from a background in science, from reading and periodically attending lectures, is that our risk-averse clinging to the status quo is itself enormously risky. The Earth, it turns out, is booby trapped. The fate of carbon currently locked up in the Amazon and in thawing methane deposits up north, the direction of ocean currents, the gradual or more rapid melting of Greenland’s enormous ice sheets — all are up for grabs as our machines daily feed the giant chemistry experiment.
Look at it this way. Venus is 850 degrees not so much because it is closer to the sun, but because its atmosphere has become packed with carbon dioxide that acts like a stifling blanket. It can help to think of the earth’s carbon as cargo on a ship, much of which needs to be stowed in order to insure a more stable ride. Since plants eat carbon dioxide, they have stowed a lot of it away over millions of years, whether temporarily in the tissues of plants and animals, or in deeper storage in buried deposits of oil, coal and natural gas. What evolved over time was a moderated climate. To feed our machines, we have collectively undertaken a radical reversal of this process, a massive liberation of long-stowed carbon, with profound and lasting consequences. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 40 percent since industrialization, with most of that attributable to human activity.
Part of the tragedy here is that all people, by and large well-meaning and generous, have been inadvertently and insidiously enlisted in a campaign to sabotage the future. Running errands, traveling, or keeping a home comfortable should not be in conflict with a planet’s long-term livability, and yet, because of failures in market forces and governance, we are left with nothing but denial to protect ourselves from the disturbing implications of everyday life.
Fossil fuels are taken for granted, burned as if there’s no tomorrow. They need to be appreciated more, and used far less. Step back and marvel at the energy packed in a gallon of gasoline, while also realizing that the stuff’s getting us into trouble. It is a one-time gift and a long-term curse, a devious trick played on civilization.
I wish there were time to keep whittling at the edges, to take baby steps towards sustainability and think our good work done and sufficient progress made. I wish that what passes for normal was not profoundly radical, and that the future would politely hold off until we find a better time than the present to take more meaningful action.
As individuals and as a town, we can hide in our anonymity among the multitudes of others participating in the same star-crossed experiment. Or we can take action locally in the hopes that what happens in a prominent town like Princeton can grow into something much larger. In my own home, we managed to maintain comfort while bringing energy use down to very low levels, mostly by retrofitting habits and thinking (see frugaline.org). Princeton High School reduced its energy use by 30 percent for a period of two months, saving $30,000, only to abandon the initiative for no clear reason. There are savings to be had, individually and collectively. It’s possible to get good at so-called sacrifice, and even find satisfactions in a less mechanized life.
The goal here is not to be paralyzed by guilt, but to drop the illusion of innocence and begin squeezing fossil fuel out of our lives. The unintended consequences of what’s considered a normal lifestyle, as it is played out in front of us and all around us, need to be at the front of our minds, talked about and acted upon.


A SHARED PATHWAY, A SHARED FUTURE

First published at planetprinceton.com, March 9, 2012



One of Princeton’s beloved and longest running assets is the towpath that borders the D&R Canal. Third among New Jersey’s most popular state parks, the canal and its path are long-running in both space and time. Until recently, an ambitious bicyclist could ride the trail 25 miles towards the Atlantic, or 35 miles over and up the Delaware, avoiding car culture altogether.
As long as I’ve been in town, the towpath has been covered with a sturdy, dependable, well-drained surface of crushed stone, firm enough for pushing a stroller or riding a bike, but easy on joggers. All that changed last August when the floods from tropical storm Irene washed out some sections of the trail and deposited a thick layer of silt on the rest.
Now, almost seven months later, little has been done to restore the trail. Though portions are passable when dry, it quickly becomes a quagmire after a rain. The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission site is replete with photos of destruction, including damage to bridges and historic buildings. I called to inquire about prospects for repair, and was told that there are plans to restore and improve the crushed stone surface now buried under silt, but all depends on the eventual arrival of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Repairing even the less-damaged sections may cost $10,000 per mile. Meanwhile, the park’s personnel, reportedly reduced to a third of 1980s staffing levels, struggle to find funding for basics like office paper.
There’s a problem here. Storms are getting stronger. Government is getting weaker. And though some may see this as just another natural disaster to deal with, natural disasters aren’t as natural as they used to be. Increasingly, the climate is gaining a human imprint as much as the land, and these two massive, collectively wrought influences — the paving of landscapes and the warming of the atmosphere — merge to powerful effect along our river corridors. Warmed atmosphere spawns more powerful storms. Meanwhile, we harden the landscape with roads, buildings and not-very-absorbent lawns, all of which convey that rainfall more quickly and destructively into the rivers.
Who’s to blame? No one and everyone. There is safety and peril in numbers. Certainly there’s a long history of inadequate public policy, and changes to policy that could still help, but what intrigues me is the role of the individual in contributing to, and potentially steering us incrementally away from, a dangerous course.
In Princeton, where the hardscape of roads and buildings is largely a given at this point, our main contribution to saving a shared asset like the towpath comes down to individual homeowners’ decisions. The aim is to stop feeding nature’s fury, and to make more absorbent those portions of the landscape we have control over. As owners of cars and other assorted climate-changing machinery, we can find ways to use them less. It’s possible to make a yard more absorbent by replacing lawns with more deep-rooted plantings, catching runoff in rain gardens, and using fall’s harvest of leaves as mulch to soften the earth. I’m a bit less sanguine about the role of rain barrels, though they could help if they were five times larger, on many downspouts, and happened to be empty when the big rains hit.
Even if the towpath is eventually repaired, the chance of future damage continues to increase with changing climate. The towpath may prove a harbinger of things to come — a steady erosion of shared assets if we take no action to protect them. The solution, like the problem, will be a collective endeavor, through what we make of government and the actions we take as individuals far from the towpath itself.
In human interactions, we don’t expect our individual acts of kindness to change the world, and yet we do them anyway. It’s time to view an individual’s impacts on land, river and air in a similar light, and extend acts of kindness to the long shared path, from the comfort of our own homesteads.



CLIMATE AND CAMELOT


This column was first published in the Princeton Packet, Feb. 28, 2012, with relevance for any town.


In the 1960 musical Camelot, they knew that climate is key to “happy ever-aftering”. With Richard Burton’s voice ringing in my ear, I looked back at the lyrics. “A law was made a distant moon ago here: July and August cannot be too hot. And there’s a legal limit to the snow here, in Camelot.” Some heat, some snow, but not too much--it sounds like a call for moderation, more like New Jersey’s accustomed climate than the shades of South Carolina quickly headed our way. Haven’t you heard? Our 12 months straight of warmer than normal weather are not a fluke, and the increasingly extreme weather events of the past year are what climate scientists have been predicting all along.


Surely Princeton thinks itself as congenial a spot as any for happy ever-aftering, yet climate appears nowhere on any list of priorities. When the Princeton borough mayoral candidates were asked at a debate last fall about what Princeton could do to confront the challenge of climate change, the audience snickered. Was the reaction an indication of widespread denial of the problem, or denial of any solution? Probably a mix of both. In either case, human intelligence has been cleverly applied to conclude that nothing need or can be done.


It’s understandable that people would feel helpless and even resentful in the face of such a challenge. After all, what can one town do about a problem that is global in scope? Less forgivable are attempts to fabricate doubt about the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused. I think of it in moral terms. Morality doesn’t wait for the world to agree, and local action can grow into a much broader movement. A central motivation is that with freedom comes responsibility, and it is deeply unjust that the consequences of our freedom (to burn fuels that will irrevocably and radically change the climate) are posterity’s permanent responsibility.


For an example of someone exercising freedom without any accompanying sense of responsibility, consider the captain who ran the cruise ship Costa Concordia aground, risking 4000 lives for the sake of showboating his gleaming machine. The captain, in deciding to steer close to shore, did not factor in the risks of doing so. He apparently ignored the modern navigational equipment on hand, and when the rocks appeared ahead, the ship’s momentum made a rapid change of course impossible.


Our navigation of the 21st century shows disturbing similarities to this indifference to risk. The potential downsides of our climate-altering activity abound. The ice sheets perched on Greenland, which are starting to sprout rivers deep in their interior that could lubricate their plunge into the Atlantic, hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 20 feet. Parts of Antarctica, which holds enough ice to raise sea levels 200 feet, could also become unstable. It’s hard to say when ocean acidification, thawing deposits of methane up north, and climate-driven shifts in ocean currents could trigger rapid transformations. As the cruise ship captain discovered, worst case scenarios need to be taken seriously, and momentum can limit options later on.


Even if current warming raises sea levels only three feet this century, that would displace the NJ coast 300 feet inland, causing tremendous damage to barrier islands, beaches and accompanying real estate. If you think government is too big now, just wait until it has to intervene in increasingly desperate attempts to save low-lying properties while providing disaster relief for radicalized weather. By opposing government intervention in emerging problems, we insure more government intervention later on.


It’s common to dismiss collective action as smacking of socialism, but we act collectively whether we intend to or not. Carbon dioxide derives its power from acting collectively--each molecule absorbing miniscule amounts of heat that, to take an extreme example, has warmed Venus to 850 degrees. Our machines, while serving our needs, pump long-buried hydrocarbons into the air as CO2, in the process collectively increasing earth's atmospheric blanket of CO2 thus far by an astonishing 40%. We ignore the power of collective action, for purposeful good or unintentional harm, at our peril.


Princeton occupies a special place in the quest for a safe route through this century. Some of the world’s most prominent climate scientists teach here. As civilization’s lookouts, they’ve offered abundant warning of the trouble ahead, and possible ways to avoid the worst of it. Despite some small, spirited initiatives, the town itself has largely ignored the profound urgency scientific findings imply, demonstrating in miniature the chasm between knowledge and policy that is playing out nationally and globally.


In a morally ambiguous age, begin by accepting that machines are simultaneously our best friends and worst enemies. As individuals and as a unified municipality, our goal must be to reduce machine use until more ethical fuels become plentiful. Cultivate ambivalence towards anything needing an exhaust pipe or chimney. Reduce the flow of energy through the umbilical cords that feed our fetal indoor lives. The energy you don’t use now is a generous gift to the future. One little-noted aspect of so-called sacrifice is that one can get good at it, and even find pleasure in a less mechanized life. In the ongoing election of a future, Princeton’s vote is a small one, but more prominent than most.



Learning From the Titanic

The following was first published on the April 12, 2012 Trenton Times opinion page under the title, "Earth's passengers should learn from the Titanic."

The good ship America is steaming full speed ahead towards the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s demise--the biggest symbol of avoidable disaster ever to sail the seas of human discourse. Given concerns about where we are headed, as a nation and as a planet, it’s worth asking what were the ingredients for disaster as the Titanic approached ice fields on a moonless night.

As chance would have it, the anniversary falls on April 15, usually a rallying point for discontent with government and taxes. But the elements feeding the Titanic’s demise, and other disasters in more recent decades, suggest that the reflexive anti-government thinking so dominant today misses the boat when it comes to identifying the dangers we face in the 21st century.

Technological Hubris: Most people associate the Titanic with a delusional belief in infallibility. The Titanic’s Captain Smith said he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder." Worst-case scenarios tend to get short shrift in an atmosphere of overconfidence.
Inadequate Regulation: Lack of regulation primed the Titanic for disaster. Ships were not required to have sufficient lifeboats. Lax standards contributed to critical breakdowns in wireless communication between the Titanic and other ships.
Ignored Warnings: Warnings came from various ships in the vicinity that were encountering ice fields that night, but the Titanic made only minor adjustments, and continued at nearly full speed.
Don’t Rock The Boat: The Titanic pressed forward despite risky conditions in part because of high expectations that it stay on schedule.
Poor Information Flow: Safeguarding the ship was not the wireless operators’ top priority. After forwarding to the captain several warnings of icebergs from other ships, they went back to their primary role--relaying the passengers’ personal messages--and dismissed additional warnings as an annoyance.
Delayed Feedback: Having ignored warnings, the Titanic was dependent upon its lookouts to spot icebergs in its path. But visibility was limited on a moonless night, and icebergs show little of their true size looming underwater.
Momentum: When the iceberg finally came into view, the ship’s momentum--its sheer mass and high speed--made a last minute change of course impossible.

This list can be applied to most any disaster of recent decades. Warnings from engineers, scientists and other specialists with critical knowledge went unheeded prior to the two space shuttle disasters, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial collapse. Pressure to stay on schedule caused NASA to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite weather concerns. Inadequate regulation facilitated the financial meltdown.

But the list is most relevant to a calamity just now unfolding. The assumption is that Earth is infinitely resilient, “unsinkable”. Though warnings are repeatedly sounded that we are taking a very risky path, we feel compelled to move forward, to stoke the engines of the economy, even if it’s an economy based on fatally flawed fuels. Advertisements bathe us in celebratory images of gleaming automobiles that, for all their appeal and utility, speed the destabilization of climate.

Our leaders might be more emboldened to take strategic action if voters were better informed about the tremendous risks embedded in the status quo. But the news media are focused on the day to day political drama rather than relaying the scientists’ increasingly urgent warnings. Consensus for action becomes even more problematic when people feel they have a right to their own facts. Worst-case scenarios dare not be mentioned.

What is particularly important to note here is that the Titanic was just one ship. Other ships eventually arrived to pick up the survivors. Laws were passed requiring more lifeboats and better wireless communication. Despite the tragic loss, civilization could continue, safer for the lessons learned. But with spaceship Earth, there are no lifeboats, no other planets to come to our rescue, no second chances. The momentum of both the human economy and human-caused climate change is huge and will require an immense and prolonged effort to counter.

Before the passengers on the Titanic lost their lives, they lost the comfort of their assumptions. Everything deemed important up to the moment of the fateful collision was suddenly rendered trivial. Maximizing one’s wealth, status and entertainment, staying on schedule--all these urgent priorities dissolved into nothing.

We, too, are steaming at full speed towards a rude awakening, in which the priorities we cling to so strongly now will prove in retrospect to have mattered little. A way of life is not guarded by vilifying government, branding scientific knowledge as elitist, and stripping a society of its regulatory protections. “Every man for himself” are the words of a ship captain who realizes all is lost, not a slogan for progress.

The lessons of the Titanic and more recent disasters are there to be learned from. Take warnings seriously, consider worst-case scenarios, and when there’s trouble ahead, shift course before it’s too late.



CO2 on Mars and Venus

It's easy to be fooled by CO2. Odorless, invisible, a benign part of every breath--what harm could possibly come of pouring more of it into the atmosphere?

According to my notes from a talk at Princeton University by Michael Oppenheimer, the extreme heat of Venus, and the extreme cold of Mars, are not so much a matter of their distance from the sun but of how much CO2 is in their atmospheres. Venus has a very high concentration of atmospheric CO2, while the concentration on Mars is very low. A quick check on the internet yielded the following: Venus has temperatures approaching 900 F, while the surface of Mars rarely gets above freezing.

In other words, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has everything to do with whether a planet is too hot, too cold, or just right.

Energy Consumption and the Sound of Silence

Though most people are now aware that global warming is a problem, awareness does not necessarily spur a change in behavior. For me, a sense of urgency developed by degrees. A photo seen, an article read--all describing a radically changed world because of our consumption of ancient fuels. Oftentimes, matter-of-fact descriptions had a greater impact than high volume soundings of alarm. At some point--maybe it was a description of how our CO2 emissions are fundamentally changing the chemistry and ecological destiny of the oceans--I realized the status quo could not continue.

Strangely, the realization need not lead to a burden of guilt but instead to a sense of empowerment. Each of us has the power to reduce our impact. The first thing to do is to discern when you're consuming fossil fuels and when you're not. This is not so easy, particularly around the house, where silent appliances can nonetheless be consuming large quantities of electricity. Unfortunately, your electric meter is of little use, since it's hard to read and located outside somewhere in the bushes. Not a convenient setup for providing feedback.

Just as my sense of urgency was fed by quiet descriptions rather than loud pronouncements of imminent doom, there is another sort of quiet that can power change in our lifestyles. The silence I refer to in the title of this post has more to do with awareness than with sound. Right now, my computer is drawing nearly 200 watts (old desktop, since replaced), the refrigerator several rooms over is cycling on and off, using another 150 watts when it's on. The TV and cordless phone are drawing a few watts, even though they are turned off. Beyond that, things are pretty "quiet" around here. If I decided to use the electric dryer rather than a clothesline, the house would suddenly be drawing an extra 3700 watts! Though the dryer's quiet as a whisper, it's possible to "hear" this as a raucous noise of consumption.

Fortunately, the clothes are air-drying, and if I turn off the computer, the house's power consumption gets quieter still. To be aware of this sound of silence is to relax in a new way. This awareness can be applied to your personal energy consumption at any moment in your day. Even though the street traffic may be loud, to walk or bike somewhere is to experience silence, whereas to drive a car is to hear a racket (consumption speaking), even if the windows are up.

The impact each of us has on the world as we consume fossil fuels is abstract. But the evidence is in--our collective impact is real. As each of us comes to realize what is at stake, it's understandable if we all feel a growing sense of tension between our lifestyles and the planet's future. Develop an awareness, "listen" to how much power you're consuming, find ways to turn down the volume, and discover in this all-too noisy and abstract world a new feeling of relaxation that has silence at its core.

A Solar Powered Lifestyle (Without Solar Panels)

I looked into getting solar panels for my home. The roof's oriented all wrong, and there are some big trees in the way. The solar rep, slow to yield to reality, suggested we put the panels in the backyard. I worried about soccer balls and various other errant airborne objects.

That puts me in a group that in many parts of the country constitutes a majority, who by and large like the shade and don't have homes that will conveniently rotate to face south. After a few months of being discouraged, I realized that there are nonetheless large portions of my lifestyle that can be converted to solar power, without the substantial investment in solar panels.

Begin with the realization that all of us are solar powered. The food that keeps us going carries energy harvested from the sun over the last year or so. True, it took fossil fuels to grow, process and transport the food, but fossil fuels are also consumed in the construction, transport and installation of solar panels. An array of panels on your roof might be dandy, but there are other ways of harnessing the solar energy within you and without you. The most retro of lifestyles can suddenly seem cutting edge when looked at from this perspective.

For instance, most people already have a solar powered vehicle, better known as a bicycle. Steep hills somehow seem less onerous when you realize you're drawing your energy from the sun. An electric clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in your home (mine draws 3700 watts) and can be easily replaced by a solar-powered dryer, in the form of a clothesline or foldable drying rack. (Towels still go in the regular dryer, at least until the scratchy-towel-syndrome can be conquered.) My solar powered lighting system (windows) works from sun-up to sunset. And a solar-powered dishwasher frequently takes on the pile of dishes on the kitchen counter. A vacuum cleaner (ours draws a hefty 1000 watts while on) is still handy for rugs and carpets, but a solar-powered broom works just fine for smooth floors.

The body has solar-powered heating and cooling capabilities that can be optimized by matching clothing to the season. The solar-powered mind, too, can play a role. Though I doubt I could meditate naked in the snow, like Buddhist monks, I find my perception of comfort increases if I acknowledge that it is, in fact, summer, and maybe it's okay if the house feels just a wee bit warmer than during other seasons. Air conditioning can get consumed much like coffee. The first cup generates a vague appetite for more, whether it's needed or not.

News articles come and go about research breakthroughs that will make solar panels more powerful and affordable, but we're all still waiting for them to turn into products we can actually buy. In the meantime, and it seems to


Minimizing Heat Production in the House During Summer

In the summer heat, there are many ways a house conspires to make itself even hotter. Here are some ways to cut back on the house's heat production and reduce the need for the A/C. Most of these are minor, but their effect can add up, and they include savings of their own. I claim no expertise, only some experience and a willingness to experiment.

  • Lower the temperature of your water heater to a temperature that, when you turn on the hot water for a shower, there isn't any need to dilute it with water from the cold tap. This simplifies showering as well as reduces the work your water heater needs to do.
  • Turn off the heating element in your refrigerator that heats the door (supposedly to reduce condensation on the door). If your frig has one, the button should be inside near the back, where the light bulb is.
  • Use as low-wattage a light bulb in the frig as you can. Our older frig had an incandescent bulb inside that gets searing hot during prolonged open door meditations on what to eat. This is a perfect spot for a LED light, which would not emit much heat, but they aren't available as far as I can tell.
  • Minimize the use of incandescent and halogen light bulbs, which get very hot. Many of these can be replaced with fluorescents without sacrificing the quality of light.
  • When boiling water for tea, boil only as much water as you need, so that less heating is needed and unused hot water doesn't sit on the stove, heating the room. Or heat the water in a microwave with the bag inside.
  • We usually associate attic insulation with keeping heat in during the winter, but attics can turn into cauldrons in the summer, and abundant insulation helps keep that heat from seeping into living spaces.
  • Humidity in the house can be affected by the yard's topography. If the ground is sloping towards your house, rain is more likely to seep in next to your foundation and add humidity. Within four to six feet of the foundation, the ground should slope away. My house inspector told me it's okay to pile dirt against bricks, but not against wood siding.
  • Whole house fans: Very helpful, but ours is overpowered, which means it overwhelms the vents in the attic. The resultant high pressure actually pushes attic air down into 2nd story rooms. Not good, so having attic ventilation and fan power balanced is important. One thing that has worked well is to have a window fan that runs overnight, progressively cooling the house. Closing up in the morning as the day starts to heat up keeps the cool air inside.
  • I can't explain why, but we wash our dishes by hand. Maybe a bit of hand labor is relaxing; maybe the older dishwasher's noise and slowness is bothersome; maybe it's stubborn habit. It's been reported that handwashing can be more wasteful than using a newer model dishwasher, but so much depends on style. My wife uses the Niagra Falls method, in which hot water streams out of the faucet constantly until she's done. I use cold water in bursts, making sure the dishes are wet first to soften the dirt and minimize the work. We don't use a tub, but instead put dish soap directly on the sponge. No outbreaks of the plague have been reported due to my cold water method, and in summer the cool water is a welcome feeling. Even if a little more water is used in handwashing, bypassing a dishwasher saves a lot of energy and heat production.
  • Air dry clothes.

Biking in the Mist

One of my moments of environmental awakening came as I found myself driving my car four blocks to a town meeting on sustainability. The irony of the situation struck two blocks into the drive. Why was I using a car to transport myself four blocks to a meeting whose main purpose is to figure out how we can become less dependent on fossil fuels? As it happened, I was running late, and there was a light mist that could turn into rain--two factors that make me instinctively grab the car keys. I immediately parked the car and walked the rest of the way. To my surprise, the precipitation did not penetrate my clothes.

Since then, I have gradually expanded my tolerance for biking in mist, or drizzle, or even sometimes rain. This morning, for instance, a misty moisty morning, I taxied my daughter to school on the trailer bike, and found the mist to be even enjoyable. Another time, when the mist turned to rain while heading home, we experienced an unexpected euphoria. There can be a certain laboriousness to riding a bike, but it can also bring a sense of awakening, of being more alive.


REFRIGERATORS: A REGULATORY SUCCESS STORY

When our 90s era refrigerator began to run more than usual, I tried vacuuming out the coils underneath, cleaned the seal and checked the settings. But the rubber on the seal had begun to break off, and though a new seal would have cost one or two hundred dollars, it wasn't clear that that was the only problem. Calls on the home front for a newer, more attractive model won out.

Using a Kilowatt meter, I was able to document how much energy the old refrigerator was using, and then compare it to the new one. A little research shows that refrigerators have been one of the great success stories of government regulation driving technological innovation. Since the first efficiency standards were put in place in 1978, the annual energy use of a typical refrigerator has dropped from 1800 kilowatt hours down to 450. Though some in the industry complained about the standards, predicting increased costs for the consumer, costs have in fact steadily dropped as a series of new, more stringent standards have been adopted. (Google "refrigerator efficiency standards graph" for a great visual of this.)

Our old refrigerator was fairly efficient, thanks to standards put in place in 1993. But when it was on, it was using 150 watts compared to the new one, which uses 70. The old one also had coils underneath that had to be periodically cleaned, and the incandescent lightbulb quickly heated up the interior whenever we opened the door. Even when completely silent, the frig would periodically start gobbling up 650 watts of energy to heat up its walls and thereby defrost itself.

The new refrigerator, thanks to efficiency standards put in place in 2001 and the American ingenuity that ensued, is engineered to reduce these counterproductive aspects. The Kilowatt meter measures not only how much energy the frig is using at any particular moment, but also can track how much is used over time. In the case of our new frig, measurements confirmed that the manufacturer's estimated annual use of 450 kilowatt hours is accurate.

The Kilowatt meter and similar devices are available on the web for about $20. 

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