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Weighing watts

Are you prepared for a blackout?

Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s newsletter column on wireless. Some people’s experiences with these gadgets were far worse than mine. (I should add that the Handspring worked flawlessly.) Overall I’m grateful for the hassle because it’s a good reminder about the relative importance of this stuff in our lives.

Speaking of hassles and importance, a recent article in The New York Times made me reflect on the recent blackout crisis in California more carefully. It’s easy to see just the issues that have received the most attention–i.e., the supply and demand factors. And as long as the crisis is nowhere near you, it’s pretty easy to dismiss it. But the NYT article focused on individuals who live in California and their varying degrees of energy awareness and blackout-preparedness. It detailed the number of watts of electricity different appliances consume. Not surprisingly refrigerators are one of the biggest energy hogs. But did you know that even when your VCR or microwave is off, the electronic keypads on these appliances consume anywhere from 1 to 10 watts?

The folks in that story who really impressed me were those who went beyond conserving energy to the next level: becoming keenly aware of whether or not electricity was required to light a pilot light, for example. These people, not surprisingly, have backup plans for power outages and own at least one generator. One man mentioned in the article used to live in Tahoe National Forest and used a generator to power his home. He had to know the watt usage of any appliance he might want to buy, since he couldn’t take his electricity supply for granted. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you whether or not my house would have heat if we had a blackout, although I suspect not. Since I live in a very cold Midwestern state, this is really taking electricity for granted, to say the least.

I thought we’d heard the last of the generator scare when 2000 dawned, unscathed. But now I realize that assessing energy preparedness is not something to regard as strictly for the back-to-basics crowd.

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