Electricity is ubiquitous in the developed world. We rely on it for our lighting, appliances and entertainment systems, and often heating and cooling. Living in the United States, it is hard to imagine going even a single day without electricity. At the same time, it is equally as easy to forget how many people in the world do not have access to it: an estimated 1.5 billion, roughly a fourth of the world’s population. Concentrated disproportionately in Africa and southern Asia, they constitute 79 percent of the population of the 50 poorest nations on Earth.
There are a number of forward-thinking, fast-growing organizations in the United States devoted to giving “power to the people.” In early February, the ISU Renewable Energy Society hosted a speaker from We Care Solar, an organization that delivers portable solar suitcases to parts of the world without electricity. These devices power critical lighting, mobile communication, and medical equipment. The speaker, Shannon Fulton, is a graduate of the Renewable Energy major at Illinois State. Fulton demonstrated how the suitcases work. One electrical device in the suitcase allows a pregnant mother to hear her baby’s heartbeat when pressed against her stomach. Maternal mortality remains a significant cause of death in the developing world. According to Fulton, this instrument is a big draw for getting pregnant women to come to the medical clinics. Once there, medical staff can run additional tests to evaluate the health of the mother and unborn child.
“By equipping off-grid medical clinics with solar power for medical and surgical lighting, walkie-talkies and essential medical devices, WE CARE Solar facilitates timely and appropriate emergency care, reducing maternal and infant morbidity and mortality and improving the quality of care in Africa, Haiti and other regions.” –We Care Solar
Fulton’s story got me thinking about how often I take electricity for granted. Truthfully, until about my third year of college, I lived in what was essentially a state of blatant unconsciousness about my electricity usage. But when I began thinking seriously about it, I realized my consumption had myriad political, economic, and environmental consequences. The consequences vary depending on how the electricity is generated (whether by nuclear, wind, coal, etc.), who owns and operates the generation and distribution system (whether public or private), and the distance between where the electricity is produced and consumed. As a consumer, the absolute best thing you can do for the environment and your budget is to reduce your electric consumption as much as possible (this rule actually applies to all forms of energy).
A frightening phenomenon in the developed world is “vampire power.” No, it is not an underground movement of wannabe vampires or True Blood fans. It is the electricity consumed by household appliances, entertainment systems, and computers when not in use. Also known as phantom load, standby power, or plug load, it accounts for approximately 10 percent of the total power used in your house! When turned off, many microwave ovens, DVD players, coffee makers, laptops, televisions, printers, and satellite boxes remain on standby. Others power internal clocks, and are never technically “off” until they are unplugged. Regardless, they continue sucking electricity from your socket, not unlike how a vampire sucks blood from your veins, even when you are not using them. So, there you go. I just told you how to save 10 percent on your electric bill! DESTROY THE VAMPIRE! Unplug them. Unplug them all! Mua ha ha ha!
But this is serious, you guys. Wasted energy costs the United States an estimated $10 billion per year. How much do you think you’re spending on it? Were vampire power eliminated, the country could shut down 30 coal power plants, avoiding 50 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide. Save your money and protect the environment by unplugging your electronics and appliances when not in use. An easy way to do this is by using a power strip. Simply plug all your appliances and electronics into the strip, and switch it off when they are not in use. This has a public service message from the Office of Sustainability at Illinois State University. Redbirds unite!