This Amazingly Simple Gadget Can Solve Our Energy Woes. And It's Already in Your Home

In all the gee-whiz talk of new potential tech solutions to California's energy and climate crisis, there's a simple bit of technology that can radically change the way Californians consume energy.

This gizmo could shrink our climate footprint without endangering wildlife, penalizing struggling ratepayers or requiring new, massive, and expensive infrastructure. In fact, widespread use of this technology could actually save the typical Californian a significant amount of money. And the best part is you've already got a bunch of them in your home.

What is this disruptive piece of technology? It's called an "off-switch."

Safe for wildlife, habitat, public health and the climate. | Photo: Mike/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Energy conservation isn't particularly sexy. Those of us of a certain age will recall President Carter taking a lot of political flak for appearing on television in a sweater and encouraging Americans to turn down their thermostats in winter. Younger folks may recall Vice President Dick Cheney sneering that conservation was not much more than a "personal virtue." Using less energy is sometimes considered "unAmerican."

But we Americans use a lot more energy than most countries with similar standards of living. We came in 11th in the world in per capita energy use in 2012, according to the World Bank, whose data has been helpfully compiled into sortable table form at Wikipedia.

Who beat us out in energy use per capita?

  • A bunch of oil-rich Middle Eastern states, predictably, along with oil-dominated Trinidad and Tobago and Brunei;
  • the tiny nation of Luxembourg, a heavy industrial center for Western Europe with a relatively small population, which tweaks the per capita figures significantly;
  • Iceland, which takes first place mainly due to its small population's using a whole lot of geothermal power to refine aluminum;
  • and Canada, which is essentially like the U.S. but with more heating required.

What of the other nations whose standards of living Americans might enjoy emulating? Australia, with its long open roads to drive and significant need for air conditioning, comes in at about 3/4 of America's per capita energy consumption. Residents of tech powerhouses Japan and Germany use a tiny bit more than half as much power as we do. New Zealand, which came in a respectable sixth in one widely-used measure of living standards, uses only a bit more power per capita than Germany and Japan, a third of it renewable.

So it's clear that people in the United States have some room to cut back on energy use without their standard of living taking a hit.

Californians are a bit less wasteful of energy than the national average. In fact, 2011 figures from the Department of Energy indicate that residents of just four states -- New York, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Connecticut -- used less energy per person in that year than Californians did.

But using less energy than most Americans per capita is a pretty low bar. Besides which, a small amount of energy per capita times 38 million Californians adds up to a huge amount of energy. In that same 2011 ranking in which our state had the fifth lowest per capita energy use, California as a whole ranked second only to Texas in total energy consumption, and we used nearly twice the energy of Florida, which took third place.

California has some fairly rigorous energy conservation programs in place, thanks to the California Energy Commission and other agencies. As a result of those programs, a tolerable climate, and general environmental sentiment among Californians, the state's overall energy consumption has stayed more or less stable since 1998 or so.

But as we're learning, that current stable energy consumption is nonetheless still unsustainable for the planet's climate. Which means that it's important for us Californians to do everything we can do to use less energy.

And with 38 million of us, those little savings add up.

Consider the light switch, the sneaky viral-flavored tease -- these days referred to as the "curiosity gap" -- with which we got you to click on this article.

Let's do some quick math. There are more than 13.7 million housing units in California. Let's assume each one of those housing units has at least one 100-watt light bulb. Turn them on all at once, and the state's power grid has about another 131 megawatts of demand it has to meet. That's about half the output of a small gas-fired power plant, and it's more power than the notorious O'Shaughnessy Dam, the one that flooded Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park, provides the city of San Francisco.

Little power uses add up. But let's go in the opposite direction. Assume that those hypothetical 100-watt bulbs are lit for a lot longer than they really need to be: when no one's in the room, or no one's home, or when the tasks the people in the room are doing really don't require the extra light.

If those lightbulbs started getting turned off when they're not really needed, California's nearly 14 million housing units could save a lot of energy. Assume each such household used that single 100-watt bulb for two fewer hours each day. Statewide, that would mean a drop in power demand of about 2,744 megawatt-hours each day.

That's more than half of the power California currently gets, on an average day, from burning coal. Saved by flicking a light switch.

There are certainly plenty of other ways to save energy in your household, from getting more efficient appliances, to unplugging those "standby" gadgets that cost the typical U.S. household $100 a year in un-needed energy consumption. And California's households account for only about one fifth of the state's total energy use. (Industry and commercial enterprises use a bit more, and transportation uses the lion's share, about 38 percent in 2011.)

As ReWire wraps up the year, we'll look at conservation in those other sectors in 2013 as well.

But we just figured, as we ease toward the end of a year in which generating capacity has been built at a record pace, that the amazing gadgets in those plates on your walls deserve a second look. The best energy source is not using more energy than you really need to.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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