It isn’t like one of those holiday scenes with a flurry of snow swirling, caught inside a vigorously shaken globe of winter wonder. It’s only a glass cylinder about the size of a three-pound coffee can, attached to my telephone post. A silver disc spins inside it. Vaguely resembling a CD player, it’s known in the utilities business as an electric meter. It measures my indulgences. A long time ago, an employee from the electric company used to stop by to read its numbers. Eventually, customers were asked to read their own numbers. Then about 10 years ago, the electric company replaced my old meter, and when I looked out my window after dark, a tiny red light winked back at me from under the glass, steady as an omnipotent eye. Now my meter reads itself.
Benjamin Franklin’s early experiment with electricity involved a kite, a key and a lightning bolt. Frankly, he was taking far more chances than I would take. My experiment required only a flashlight and a steady hand. It involved going outside one night to watch the meter spin.
I’ll admit I didn’t come to any earth-shattering conclusion other than noticing how each revolution was costing me money, so I went back to the house and turned on every big name-brand appliance I owned, then plugged in every Christmas light. In other words, I cranked it up, just to see how much faster the meter moved. It whirled.
Next, I went back into the house and shut everything off. I assumed the meter would slow down, which it did, but I was surprised to see that it never stopped. I returned inside the house and unplugged each and every cord from its wall socket; it continued to spin. Something -- maybe just the pull of the moon -- wouldn’t allow my meter to quit. Who knows? It’s even possible that, like a hamster in its cage, I had been expending enough energy running back and forth house to keep the wheel turning.
Since this experience, my first consumer-based experiment, I’ve located more than a few permanent electrical leaks in my home, most of them approved of or even sponsored by corporate manufacturers and, more than likely, the electric company.
It’s shocking to see how many electrical devices absorb a continuous flow of electricity just to keep in touch. And once they’re plugged in, they beep, flash their little lights, wobble and whir, making all the sounds to let me know they’re pleased. In other words, they are manufactured like parasites, to attach themselves to the grid and suck it dry until the device overheats, or the power company goes belly-up, whichever comes first.
Granted, most of these devices require only a trickle of juice to keep, say, that tiny red LCD light on the TV, DVD player, or surge protector glowing, or the numerals on yet another digital clock crisp enough to read. I counted 14 clocks in my house, which helped me decide that it’s time for my family to start paying attention to how much electricity we use. The silver disc spins silently, which is probably best, because if it generated a high-pitched whine the faster it spun, I’d have all the neighborhood dogs in my yard, while cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas would have their entire populations running for their Civil Defense shelters.
The best answer for the West still comes from the prospect of generating one’s own electricity through solar power or any of the alternatives bandied about, such as tapping underground heat or wind. All of the technology has been around for decades, but some people must still believe it’s a tree-hugger’s dream. I mean, I thought America would be mass-producing fuel-efficient cars right after President Nixon lowered the national speed limit to 55 mph.
What I need at my house is a static electrician, someone who can wire the carpeting in my living room and hallway so that the electrical discharge I’m constantly firing off into the unknown can be harnessed. If I’m lucky, and if I actually drag my feet the way the government is doing, maybe I can generate enough electricity during the next cold spell to sell my surplus power back to the electric company.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He teaches and writes in Cortez, Colorado.
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