Politics and Other Mistakes: Heat of the moment

7 mins read

Because of the high cost of heating oil, I’m considering installing an alternative energy source in my house. I’ve examined the possibilities, and it looks like my best bet is a home nuclear-power plant.

Only kidding. I just like how the words “home nuclear-power plant” cause all the blood to drain out of environmentalists’ faces.

A mini-nuke in my basement would be too costly. Even with all that five-buck-a-gallon oil I wouldn’t be burning – not to mention the savings from not using nightlights because the whole place would glow in the dark – I doubt the little atom-splitter would pay for itself anytime this century.

But by emphasizing economics, I could be taking the wrong approach to this whole alt – you don’t mind if I call you “alt,” do you? – energy thing. The point – if I’m reading proponents of wind, solar and geothermal power correctly – isn’t that these approaches cost less. Because they don’t. The real reason I’ve got to free myself from conventional heating sources is to reduce my carbon footprint.

The great thing about limiting my thinking about heating to eliminating black, feet-shaped stains on the carpet is that it doesn’t matter what the price tag is. Purchasing wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal gizmos may leave me bankrupt, but I’ll go to a pauper’s grave knowing I did what was best for the planet. (Assuming, of course, that I’m using the term “pauper’s grave” metaphorically, since wasting precious space on Mother Earth for a burial spot for my semi-frozen corpse – it turned out those alt-energy sources didn’t keep the house quite as warm as I expected – would be sacrilege.)

For an excellent example of this damn-the-checkbook-balance thinking, check out the new home of the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine. Sure, it looks like a strip mall on the outside. Sure, it looks like a warehouse on the inside. Sure, this 1,900-square-foot house cost over $380,000 (not counting site development and landscaping). But it’s green, baby, green.

With a little luck, Unity Home (they’re clever about naming things at Unity College), will get all its energy from the sun this winter. If not, the president and his family can supplement their heating system by burning ecology textbooks. And in just 20 bone-chilling years, this experimental house will have made up the difference in its price over a conventional home.

Thousands of Mainers who haven’t figured out how to come up with $5,000 for heating oil this winter will, no doubt, be lining up to buy their own Unity Homes. “It’s awful ugly,” they’ll say, “but it sure beats another January in the mobile home.”

I don’t mean to single out Unity College. Not when there are plenty of other environmentally enhanced (but economically challenged) attempts to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. In early July, the Bangor Daily News reported on a couple in Newport who’d just installed a windmill in their front yard. It cost $57,000. If it produces all the electricity their household needs, about 20 to 25 kilowatt-hours per day, it should pay for itself in 40 years. Assuming it requires no maintenance. Which it will. And assuming the wind blows enough. Which, to date, it hasn’t. That stuff doesn’t bother the windmill’s owners, one of whom told the paper, “It just feels good to have done it.”

Imagine how much better they’d feel if they’d gone solar. A sun-powered installation with the same potential power output would set them back at least twice what they paid for their oversized whirligig. Most solar systems have a life expectancy of less than 20 years, which means they’ll break even about the time the spent fuel rods from my home nuke are safe enough for the kids to play with.

I’m not saying alternative power has no place in Maine’s energy mix. Some schools and businesses have installed such systems and made them pay, mostly because industrial-size solar panels and $700,000 geothermal drillings offer an economy of scale that individual units can’t match. It’s like the difference between my basement atomic power plant and the real thing.

But for the average homeowner or renter, installing even a tricked-out wood-pellet furnace for $15,000 makes no more fiscal sense than trading in the Prius for an Escalade. It’s just engaging in the post-energy-crisis version of conspicuous consumption. You get to march to the poorhouse chanting, “My footprint is smaller than your footprint.”

You want to cut your heating costs this winter? You could wait around for the government to do something, although this approach carries the danger of hypothermia arriving before the relief shows up. Or you could:

Insulate. Weather-strip. Turn down the thermostat. Close off rooms you don’t need. Use electric space heaters in the ones you do. Put on an extra layer. Or three.

And remember, for the price of a single windmill, you can go to a New Hampshire liquor store and buy 1,500 large bottles of Jameson Irish Whisky.

Toast me or roast me by e-mailing aldiamon@herniahill.net

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