Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Energy Prices and the Low-Income Family

It's a bad time to be broke in America. While most people are focusing on gasoline prices, there are other areas where energy costs are depleting consumer bank accounts, and posing a health risk as well. Low-income households spend much more of their income on energy bills than do families with median incomes. This "energy burden," can be substantial for many Americans. According to the US Department of Energy, some elderly participants of energy assistance programs, and who live on fixed incomes, pay as much as 35% of their annual incomes for energy bills. Though many of these individuals don't drive, a large proportion do. Additionally, they may live far from public transporation (which requires a car, insurance, and fuel). This leaves less to spend on energy-efficiency technologies like compact fluorescents, improved windows, and God-forbid, solar photovoltaic panels or micro-wind turbines. Energy crises disproportionately affect lower-income citizens, and we can only expect more as cities grow and consumption right along with it.

So how are things looking for the future? We're well aware that citizens of the so-called "developed" Western world consume far more energy than our "third-world" brethren; the U.S. is the world's leading oil consumer, using over 26 percent of daily consumption despite having less than 5 percent of the world's population. Around 70% of our fossil fuel imports are used for transportation alone. In developing nations, power outages and limited access to personal transport are a way of life. Unfortunately, America's high standard of living equates to high energy use. Now we are realizing a supply and demand inbalance, not just in oil but in electrical generation as well. About 24% of our power needs are met with natural gas (methane), and more than 70% of new homes are heated with it. A majority of the world's methane reserves are in Russia, Qatar, and Iran. Fun times ahead, eh?

The key to our continued economic growth, or even sustained basic living conditions for lower-income residents, is conservation and implementation of energy-efficiency measures on a broad scale.


Blogger Dale said...

Share with us some of your widescale energy conservation ideas Emil.

11:45 AM  
Blogger emeeul said...

Lots can be done, sir banks. If you're talking home measures, the obvious things are not to leave appliances and lights on when not in use. High-efficiency Energy-Star rated appliances such as fridges, washers and dryers, computers etc. are a good start. Remember than fans only cool skin, they do nothing if no one is in the room. Ventilation is key for homes without air. Trees and shading reduce the cooling load in summer, and heating load from wind in winter. Insulate your house and roof, that is key. Of course, you can get into really expensive measures to conserve, as well as produce your own renewable power (which can feed into the grid and reduce bills considerably, at higher initial cost outlay).

On the transport front, live closer to work if possible. Ride your bike, and/or telecommute. Use public transportation. Share cars. Buy a 50mpg diesel (but use cleaner-burning biodiesel and support American farmers).

These are the obvious ones. Of course all require some sort of responsibility and motivation. Most are cheap or easy to phase in over time.

For future planning, electricity will probably be cheaper than natural gas. Funny though, most of our power plants now burn gas. Coal for power generation is the cheapest fuel available, and the most common in America. It's just very dirty. If nuclear comes on line, electricity will stay fairly inexpensive. Methane from landfills may play a greaer role, as will wind and solar, but to a lesser extent. Sadly, anything coming on a ship from another nation will be more costly (ie oil and liquified natural gas), so localized forms of energy are best to plan for.

If we want to go a renewable route, EVERYONE will have to reduce their energy consumption greatly. Daylighting with lo-emissivity windows may be mandatory for offices.

Visit EPA for more info.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

With the current housing market boom, how will that affect energy prices? Are new homes currently being outfitted with energy saving appliances and fixtures? Is there any lobbying being done to have builders install solar panels on new homes?

12:14 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

Wouldn't the government benefit by installing solar panels and energy saving devices in public and low income housing? I would assume that those who live in public and low incoming housing work less/spend more time at home which would translate to higher energy costs for the taxpayer.

12:20 PM  

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