Kilowatt or Kilowhat: ignorance about energy


By Ankur Patel

Energy is directly linked to a standard of living, yet we rarely know details about our energy use other than those on our personal electricity bill.

If the California State University system corrected this void in understanding with its students, young graduates entering society would have a better understanding of their footprint and could directly contribute to cleaner and renewable energy.

Energy usage isn’t complicated. A 10 watt light bulb will use 10 watts if it is left on for an hour, 100 watts if it is left on for 10 hours, 1 kilowatt if it is left on for 100 hours (kilo = 1,000), 1 megawatt if it is left on for 100,000 hours.

Unfortunately, even this short explanation probably caused some eyes to glaze over. Technology like computers, televisions, even phone chargers are trickier and generally don’t come with labels that let us know how many kilowatts are used per hour.

Energy production is a little more complicated, but still simple enough. A 200 watt solar panel, can generate 200 watts of electricity every hour if it is at production capacity (peak sun exposure), but that does not take into consideration energy lost in transmission, conversion or degradation of technology over time.

The people in charge generally know how much electricity each of their assets generate, but we, the consumers, don’t have an understanding of the broader energy situation.

This is the same problem that affects our activism in the sense that we want more money for education, but we don’t know where that money comes from. We want to eat healthy, but we don’t know where our food comes from. We want to live in a fair and just society, but we don’t know how the laws are written.

Those without any real knowledge on the subject often offer the counter that sustainability costs too much.
Ultimately this is untrue because we have a faith-based economy. Sustainability is popular and whatever is popular is profitable, ergo sustainability is profitable.

Profit can be measured in many more ways than dollars and cents, but if we are talking about green jobs then energy production and management are the broad field that will create the most jobs. The hazards of oil, coal and nuclear power haven’t stopped their growth because energy is fundamental to modern society and there is money to be made.

Why wouldn’t we take advantage of the green movement’s popularity to both capitalize and clean up?

One problem is “green-washing,” a term born of the overuse and trivialization of the phrase “going green.”

Going green has become a meaningless phrase used by politicians, celebrities and con-men – just like ‘energy independence’ has been used by politicians since the 1970s. It is so ubiquitous, but without visible result people easily dismiss it.

But the CSU system could make the rhetoric a reality by taking true advantage of this movement through programs that employ and educate students about energy consumption, prepare them for jobs in the growing industry and lower the energy consumption of each respective campuses.

But for now, statements like, “The new wind-farm off the coast of Massachusetts will generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes” are largely meaningless because the amount of energy a home uses is variable, and our Institute for Sustainability will agree that if we are talking about reducing energy consumption, the low-hanging fruit is residential renovation.