Wednesday, January 07, 2009

20 Billion Dollars

I'm old enough that when Carl Sagan said "billions and billions" it sounded like an unimaginable amount. Okay, I'm old enough that they didn't teach "billions" when I was in school. I have to look it up every time. One billion is one thousand multiplied by one million or 1,000,000,000.

Yet I've been contemplating twenty billion dollars, or $20,000,000,000. That's how much money the people of Michigan spend on outside energy sources -- oil and gasoline, coal, natural gas -- each year. The number came from Dr. Stephen Harsh, of Michigan State University, who was a speaker at the wind energy workshop that I attended last November. Of course, oil prices have fallen since then, so we may be spending less right now. Maybe only $10 billion, if you can say "only" and "$10 billion" in the same breath. No wonder we're broke!

I still can't get my mind around that number, but I have another number to contemplate: 60%. That's how much of Michigan's electricity is generated using coal. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, all coal burned in power plants today releases its full load of CO2 up the stack. In the future we will be replacing coal plants with wind farms -- a new wind farm is already cheaper to build than a new coal plant -- but for now, electricity use is inextricably linked to coal.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting another MSU faculty, Dr. Kirk Heinze, on my blackjack table. After talking to Dr. Heinze, I checked out his blog, which features podcasts of his weekly radio show, The Greening of the Great Lakes. The latest show, which aired January 2nd, featured an interview with Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. She is enthusiastic about Michigan's energy future, but adamant that it is time to save energy, RIGHT NOW, particularly by doing the old fashioned thing and turning out the lights when nobody is using them.

Well. I had been thinking that very thing on Christmas Eve, as I went out around midnight to check for Santa and saw, not a star in the east, but the glow of the parking lot lights at the new county office building lighting up most of the ENE. There was a time when this sort of thing would have made me long for lost dark skies. Now all I can think is "$20 billion dollars!" when I see all that wasted energy.

The governor sounded a little crazed when she talked about turning out lights. She sounded like your old grandpa, following everyone around from room to room turning out the lights. I've been acting like that at home. I haven't bought an incandescent bulb in years, and I'm looking to upgrade the CFLs to LEDs as soon as I can. I still walk around turning things off.

I've gone back to trying to turn my community's lights off, as well. As township trustee, I've been reviewing the records of the township/county agreement that allowed for the construction of the Connie Binsfield building. I came upon the original land use permit hearing minutes, which seem to require those parking lot lights to go off at night. They've been bugging me for ten years -- they waste money and make my neighborhood look trashy. Maybe I will finally get them turned off. I've also been asking questions at the new county building, and the maintainence department there is looking into replacing the high powered flagpole and sign lights with sky-friendly solar units. They have also agreed to leave the parking lot lights off on weekends and holidays.

Twenty billion dollars. One lightbulb at a time.

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