Question: How many electronic devices do you plug into an outlet on any given day? Go ahead, count them.
I personally own five gadgets that need to be powered or charged with electricity. And that doesn’t count the electric items I don’t plug in myself–like lights, printers, lab computers, ovens, refrigerators, and so on. If you count those items too, you begin to realize just how much our daily life relies on electricity.
So much of the modern technology we use every day is powered by electricity. And the people who most rely on it (especially in wealthy nations like U.S. and Japan) tend to take these items, and electricity itself, for granted.
We know that things were not always this way, but do you know when we started to use electricity? In the U.S.?…here at Hiram?
We forget—or perhaps never knew—that it was not that long ago that humans started using electricity at all. For most of human history, people lived without it. So Let’s review briefly.
While ancient people noticed its existence, it was only recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries, that electricity’s properties were studied and revealed by great minds like Benjamin Franklin (yes, the guy on the $100 bill), Michael Faraday, Alessandro Volta, Georg Simon Ohm, and others. In the late 1800s, inventors developed technologies to put electricity to practical use for people, which led to the second industrial revolution. Nicola Tesla, for example, invented the alternating current supply system and Thomas Edison designed commercially viable incandescent light bulbs in 1879. In 1882, Edison established the first central power plant in the United States in New York and stared to create and send electricity to people. It wasn’t until later that other cities developed electricity-generating plants.
What about Hiram?
It turns out that Hiram has had village-wide electricity available for exactly 79 years—less than a lifetime of some current village residents!
Historical documents show that, starting in the 1890s, people in this area attempted to operate their own electric generators with varying success. In the 1930s, the Ohio Public Service Company was providing some electricity to Hiram, but villagers were “unhappy with what they saw as poor service and high rates” (Hiram Historical Society). They applied for a $25,000 loan from the federal government to complete the plant and on December 6, 1935 became the first municipal light plant in Ohio and the third in the U.S. to be built with Public Works Administration funds (a New Deal Program).
Left: The plant’s exterior. Right: The plant’s diesel generator. Photos courtesy of the Hiram Historical Society.
Why do we like electricity? Electricity can easily be converted into other forms of energy and vice versa. For example, the potential and kinetic energy from the flow of water, thermal energy of burning coals, and mass loss after nuclear fission are all converted to electricity by hydraulic, thermal, and nuclear power generation respectively. At home, electricity is converted into light, power for electronic devices, heat for coffee maker, cool air for refrigerator, and more. Also, electricity can be transmitted across distances via power lines. For these (and other) reasons, it quickly gained in popularity and use.
At the end of 19th century, convenient electricity suddenly offered human especially people in wealthy countries access to huge amounts of energy and transformed their–and subsequently our–way of life. Electric lights brightened the night. Imagine the famous picture of night of earth lighten up with city lights. Production and consumption increased. TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, computers, cell phones, smart phones and the thousands of other ways we use electricity have come to characterize modern life. Moreover, by controlling electricity, we have been improving food production, medical welfare, and have even sent humans to the moon.
It did not just transform our way of life, it also changed how we see the world. For those who have been born into an already electrified world, we have been “plugging in” all our lives and take these uses of electricity for granted, as if things have always been this way. I think this act of plugging in embodies our loss of sense of responsibility and control on our own energy. After plugin in, we often don’t care how much electricity we use or how electricity is created far away from the outlet. There is a general sense that wall outlets are endless fountains of electricity and it shows in increasing rates of electricity consumption.
- According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) the total consumption of electricity per person in the U.S. has been steadily increasing and is around three times larger than that in 1960.
- The proliferation of personal electronic gadgets amounts to the fastest-growing source of energy demand in the world. “Americans now have about 25 consumer electronic products in every household, compared with just three in 1980,” the New York Times reports.
- Worldwide, consumer electronics represents 15% of household power demand, a number that is expected to triple over the next twenty years, according to the International Energy Agency. The IEA calculates that to satisfy demand from these gadgets will require building the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants.
It has been only three or four generations since humans have been using electricity. If you think that is along time, consider human history. Treating the past 205,000 years as one 24 hour day, it would be only around 30seconds ago that we started using electricity. Since then we have been plugging in, mostly with no sense of the consequences of that.
Considering these facts, I wonder whether we really need that much electricity per person? In fact, we don’t. We waste a great deal of unnecessary energy because of carelessness and convenience? Can such wasting be justified just because the consequences are hard for us to see?
I don’t think so. Even if we can’t see it from where we sit, there are big costs to this our relatively “new” way of life. Burning coal and other fossil fuels–accumulated carbon energy from many millions of years ago–is doing great harm to human and environmental health. Radioactive waste from nuclear plants cannot be safely stored for the long-term, even with best technology we have. Someone has to pay these costs. Nature and future generations are bearing much of the burden. Put in these terms, that sleek little device that was on your Christmas list begins to look less benign.
We don’t need to stop using electricity, but we do need to be more aware of, and ask questions about, how much we use, how to reduce waste and consumption, and how to institute less dangerous ways of producing it. Here is a list of possible ways…
- Reduce wasted electricity–Switch Off and Unplug
What can you turn off and unplug without much disturbance. Switch off the light when you leave the room…especially those who live in residence halls. We all know the lights are often on when nobody’s around. Also, it is better to unplug them when you don’t use them because it still draws electricity even after you turned off.
- Use less electricity–Have a good time
Exchange some time spent online, watching TV, gaming, etc., with time spent doing other things with real people. Have a face to face conversation. Make TV free day for a family. You will reduce the electric consumption and gain bonding and relaxation away from the constant stimulus of electric devices.
- Make smart purchases
Choose products that use less energy, especially for those you use very often. LED lights are a great place to start, they use only one tenth electricity and last forty times than incandescent lamp, which saves you money. Buying products with the Energy Star label is also good place to start. When you’re ready to do more, consider solar panels, or other forms of renewable energy.
- Check your electricity consumption—Know yourself
Monitor your electricity consumption, whether through gadgets that measure the usage of each appliance, your electric bill, or use an online calculator like this one to estimate your consumption.
- Share with others!—Spread the word
After taking a positive action, tell others. Have ideas about how to save energy? Tell your supervisor, parents, friends? Share information and passion in daily conversation to inspire others, reduce electricity consumption, and increase our personal responsibility.
Looking back helps us see where we’ve come from and can help us anticipate where we’re going. What I can see is that this generation of students is key to rebuilding the way our society works to make it more sustainable. We need to help make many structural changes, but just as important are changing the ways we, as individuals, think about energy. Our responsibility does not stop at the outlet.