Everybody wants you: Why gas is so important and how you can drive down gas prices

people-walking

What’s transparent, powerful, and something that we use in our everyday lives? Nope, it’s not the government, (though some people may think they control it). No, it’s not the Internet, although we’ll see in the coming years how the government changes that.

I’m talking about gasoline. Gasoline is a transparent liquid containing mainly hydrogen and carbon, and, when burning, produces mainly carbon dioxide and water. Americans use it every day to get to and from work and home, and to run all the errands of our daily lives.

Gasoline was one of the byproducts sloughed off at the beginning of the oil industry; back in the early days, kerosene was king. During the 19th century, kerosene replaced whale oil as the preferred fuel for lights, but as the automobile became popular and the internal combustion engine became common, gasoline became the preferred product of crude oil.  In the end, gasoline beat out hydrogen, coal, and ethanol as THE fuel source for the automobile.

Today America uses over 360 million gallons of gasoline a day. That means on average we each use more than a gallon of gasoline every day.

Why is gasoline the fuel of choice? The quick and useless answer is because it’s what we have. A lot of other fuels (hydrogen, coal, natural gas, ethanol, wood, etc) were tried, but gasoline proved to be easy to use, relatively easy to create, and energy rich. A gallon of gasoline contains about 132 megajoules (MJ) or 13 kilowatt hours. Ethanol is about 121 MJ/gallon.

What about coal?  Coal isn’t measured in gallons because it’s a solid, but 1 pound of coal contains 16 MJ (where a pound of gasoline is 22 MJ). So we use gasoline because it’s useful.

As we all watch the price of gasoline creep up and up, we all start to worry about it. When I first started driving, gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. These days we see it jump past $4. Gasoline, which comes from crude oil, is a limited commodity. There is only so much on the market (84 million barrels of crude oil a day). Out of each barrel (42 gallons) of crude oil, 19 gallons of gasoline is made.

Out of each gallon of gasoline, about 11 percent of the cost goes straight to state and federal taxes. Eighteen percent goes into refining the crude oil into gasoline. The lion’s share (62 percent) goes into the cost of getting the crude oil.

Saying all that, the price of gasoline is still important. In fact, a lot of our fellow citizens thought it was one of the major issues in the election, even though the President has little power over the cost.

What can we do to drive the price down? There are many corporations trying to find alternative ways to make gasoline. We know coal can be converted to gasoline. In fact, we know a couple of processes that work. Why are we not using them? As with most things like this, the answer is in the economics. If you have the plant in place, it’s a very expensive process. If you don’t have a plant in place, it takes years to build one.  Hydrocarbons, like gasoline, can be created by feeding algae plastics, but that’s a bleeding edge technology and not near production yet. We might even be able to pull hydrocarbons from the air, like a good magician. British scientists have come up with a way to take carbon out of the carbon dioxide in the air, combine it with hydrogen, and BAM! make gasoline. But all that’s in the future.

What can we do to lower the price today? Simple: Buy less of it. Because there is a larger supply of gasoline available, the price will go down to reflect the change in the supply and the demand. Plan out your errands ahead of time so you can do them all at the same time and in an efficient driving manner. Use your legs and the nice weather (while we have it) and walk places instead of driving. Are there grocery stores in your neighborhood? Or a bookstore? Walk around and find out. Find out more ways to use less gasoline at ECC.hmns.org.

All Summer Long

For 12 years I looked forward to the end of May. It symbolized the end of restriction and structure, and the beginning of freedom. I am, of course, talking about summer vacation, and a break from school. Now that I no longer have a regular summer break, I look back on mine with nostalgia. Kids all throughout the nation look forward to it each year. Just because we have a lull in organized education, does not mean that we should take a vacation from trying to save money or becoming more energy efficient. And here’s how.

Fur & Feather
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mrs Logic

Picnics are a wonderful thing. Especially at the Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park. In the summer, after I get off of work, I can wander over to the Miller Theater and sit down and catch some bagpipes, classical music, jazz, musicals, plays and every other variety of show. How much better that would be with a picnic. When you plan your picnic make sure to use reusable containers and utensils, and not ones that you just through away.

The summer is also a great time to take trips with family and friends. This year plan local. Every city has lots of overlooked activities, some of which are free. In Houston we have the Miller Outdoor Theater, the Houston Museum of Natural Science,whose permanent halls are free on Tuesday nights, the Museum of Fine Arts, free on Thursdays, and the Houston Arboretum which is always free. Plan ahead, car pool, and park at a place where you can walk to all the fun places you are going to visit. Or even use the public transportation system. Just remember that the fewer miles you drive the less it costs and the greener it is. Carpooling is also a great way to save energy and money!

There are special summer foods that we all enjoy. I enjoy spitting out watermelon seeds on my Grandma’s back porch, or standing outside and talking to my brother in law while he grills. This summer think locally for you favorite summer foods as well. I think walking down the aisles at my local farmer’s market is a great experience. To see all the freshly grown fruits and vegetables, to go through them and pick out the perfect prize is a gratifying experience in itself. In this day and age of instant gratification, we don’t think about all the energy that goes into moving unseasonable fruits and vegetables to a grocery store. So save the environment and get better produce by buying local.

Go outside this summer. As I’ve already shown, there are lots of places to go this summer that are outside. And it can save money. How do I save money by doing activities outside, you may ask. It’s easy to explain. When you’re not inside running a lot of different electrical devices you use less electricity. Not all of this has to be rocket science. Everny hour you’re outside at the pool, the arboretum or your local park is an hour you’re not running your laptop, HD TV, video gaming system and stereo. On the same note, make sure to turn off everything (including the lights) when you do go outside. There is no reason you should be paying for what you’re not using.

Cherry Tomato
Creative Commons License photo credit: tboard

For some fun, outside, green projects this summer I suggest gardening. You don’t need a hydroponics setup to grow some of your own food and spices. I recommend picking something easy at first. So far I have tried grape tomatoes and basil. They both produced good size crops (handfuls of grape tomatoes and far, far more basil then I thought). You can include the whole family, giving younger members their own plots and having the older ones work a single large plot.

Another great green summer pastime is reading outdoors. You may ask how this is green? Well that’s easy. We have already shown that you use less electricity when you shut everything down and go outside. Currently most people still use actual books written on paper, so that requires no electricity either. A hammock is a wonderful way to dabble in summer reading, but a towel spread on grass works just the same (or maybe even just the grass itself, you wild bohemian you). Who knows, you may drift off if the weather is nice.

If you’re like me and have problems controlling your spending (at Half Price Books specifically) and are starting to have space issues in your domiciles, there is a cheap, fun and easy way to get new books all summer long. Its called a library. Shocking I know. The two different library systems in Houston (Houston City and Harris County libraries) have wonderful selections of old and new books, movies on DVD and VHS (I have heard rumors about this system from a long, long ago) and music. Also a number of the locations are next to parks or restaurants with outside seating. The perfect way to read all those new books.

Just remember there are lots of low watt activities all around you.

Energy Vampires or the Phantom Load Menace

What are “energy vampires” or “phantom loads”? First, they are not the monsters hiding in the closet to drain your energy and make really cheesy movies. (Those are completely different ones that won’t be making an appearance in this blog.)

Energy vampires are devices that use electricity when you think they are off. They are the cell phone and iPod chargers that are left plugged in, the computer that is left in sleep mode all day, or the TV that comes on instantly when you press the button on the remote. Electronics like this never really turn off. There is always some power going to them. This allows things like clocks on DVD players to still function while off, or for the TV to come on instantly with a remote control. Phantom load accounts for 64 million megawatts (or 64,000,000,000 kilowatt hours) of power and $4 billion a year in the United States.

To find out how much that means for you, we’ll have to do some more math!

Texas Average cost of electricity – in Houston it goes from $0.10 to $0.18 per kilowatt hour. So that makes an average of $0.14 per kilowatt hour.

Here are the two bits of math to keep in mind while we figure out how much phantom load we use and how much it costs.

1 kilowatt = 1,000 watts

1 kilowatt hour = $0.14

So how much phantom load do you have?

A cell phone charger uses 0.5 watts when it is just sitting there without a cell plugged in. That adds up to 0.012 kilowatt hours per day or $0.0017. For an entire month it uses 0.36 kilowatt-hours or $0.05 per month. Yearly it uses 4.32 kilowatt hours per year or $.60 per year.

That doesn’t sound so bad. Lets keep going.

Latest photo of the TV stuff.
Creative Commons License photo credit: William Hook

An LCD TV of greater then 40 inches uses about 3 watts of power when it appears to be off, so the TV consumes 0.003 kilowatts per hour at a cost of $0.0042 per hour. For a day it uses 0.72 kilowatt hours or $0.10 every day. Per month it uses 2.16 kilowatt hours or $0.30 per month. Yearly it uses 25.92 kilowatt hours or $3.63 per year.

A computer uses 4 watts when it is off, 17 watts when it is asleep or 68 watts when it is on.

If you turn your computer off it is still taking in 0.004 kilowatts or costing you $0.00056 per hour which turns into 0.096 kilowatt hours a day or $0.01 every day. Over a month it uses 2.88 kilowatts hours or costs $0.40. In a year it will use 34.56 kilowatt hours or $4.83.

When you put the computer to sleep (lullaby little technology, go to sleep…) it still draws around 0.017 kilowatts per hour or $0.00238 per hour. That is 0.408 kilowatt hours each day or $.06 per day. Monthly that works out to 12.24 kilowatt hours or costs $1.71 per month. For an entire year that adds up to 146.88 kilowatt hours or $20.56 for a year.

If you’re like me and you leave your computer on all the time, it uses 0.068 kilowatts per hour, costing$0.01 per hour. Over one day it uses 1.632 kilowatts hours or $0.23 per day. If I left the computer on for a month it would use 48.96 kilowatt hours and cost $6.85. If I left it on for a whole year it would use 587.52 kilowatt hours and cost me $82.25.

After writing this blog I now turn my home computer off when I come to work.

A DVD player uses 1 watt while turned off or 0.001 kilowatt per hour and cost $0.00014 per hour so the DVD player uses 0.024 kilowatt hours a day and cost $0.00336 each day. Over a month it would use 0.72 kilowatt hours and cost $.10. Each year it would use 8.64 kilowatt hours and cost $1.21.

A Playstation 3 uses 1.5 watts per hour when it is off, so that’s 0.0015 kilowatts per hour and $0.00021. Each day that’s 0.036 kilowatt hours or $0.0054. Over a month it uses 1.08 kilowatt hours and costs $.15 per month. Yearly it uses 12.96 kilowatt hours and cost $1.81 per year.

A coffee maker uses 1.14 watts per hour while it is off. (This would be a coffee maker with a clock in it, or maybe a clock with an alarm that can be set to make coffee at a certain time). So the coffee maker would use .00114 kilowatts per hour and cost $0.0001596. Every day it would use 0.02736 kilowatts hours costing $.003804. Over a month it would use 0.8208 kilowatts hours and cost $0.11. Over a year, that’s 9.8496 kilowatt hours and $1.37.

That may all be small change, but it can add up. If you have a coffee maker, two cell phone chargers, a Playstation 3, three computers, a DVD player, and a LCD TV, then you spend about $2 a month just having stuff plugged in. (Note: I have not factored in monitors for computers, printers, microwaves, refrigerators, etc.)

Power Outlet
Creative Commons License photo credit: edkohler

So watts the answer? Should everything be unplugged when you’re not using it? The answer to that is probably not. Some things like smoke or carbon monoxide detectors should be left plugged in. Most people won’t want to spend the time plugging in and unplugging the TV to save a few dollars. But if you have a second TV that is not used very often, then it could be unplugged. Or if you don’t want to spend the time unplugging each cell phone charger, you could put them all on one power strip and turn the power strip off when you’re not charging. Now you can even get power strips that turn themselves off when they’re not in use. Mostly, it’s just being aware of your power usage. If you know that, you can make informed decisions.

Save the Date, Save Energy, Help Save the Planet!

Turn off your lights and unplug anything you can this Saturday night, March 28, 2009, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  You’ll be joining over one billion people, in over 2,800 cities and towns in 84 countries, who have chosen to conserve energy during the international “Earth Hour” celebration.  This is the first time Houston will officially participate. 

One hour without electricity doesn’t seem like much, but if enough people turn off their lights and appliances, etc., huge amounts of energy can be saved.  Hopefully this brief participation will make all of us think a bit more about how we use (and misuse) this finite resource and will inspire us to take further actions.  For more information, visit www.earthhour.org or www.earthhourus.org

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Then, on April 24, turn out your lights again for the 2nd annual “Lights Out Houston” program.  Although this program primarily targets Houston businesses, all of us can participate.  Last year the electricity saved was enough to power 4,600 average Texas homes for a year!  Check out http://www.houston.org/lights-out-houston/ to learn more and to see a list of businesses/corporations that participated in 2008.  If your company is not on the list, encourage the powers that be where you work to join this worthy effort! 

And be sure to get outside to gaze up at the stars during these “lights out” events!  Without all the “light pollution” of a normally-lit night in the greater Houston area, you should be able to see a lot more stars and constellations!   Lots more at www.darksky.organd www.starrynightlights.com/lpIndex.html