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My utility bills and Al's (expanded version)
© Jack Cashill
On February 25, I watched former VP Al Gore receive his Oscar for the documentary on global warming called an Inconvenient Truth.
A few days later, wanting to be well informed, I went out and rented a DVD of the same. When Mr. Gore admonished his audience “to calculate your personal impact” on an atmosphere that was now presumably on high broil, I did just that. Climate change, Al insisted, was no longer a political issue, but a “moral” one.
With impressive ease, I was able to create a personalized online account with KCP&L and check my usage history. On February 21, I learned, KCP&L had received my last monthly payment. For the very cold month proceeding—average temperature 29 degrees, compared to 43 degrees last year—my bill was $40.92.
My wife and I had been home the whole month. We run three TVs, two computers, a refrigerator, a microwave, central air, a washer and dryer, porch lights front and back, at least a few indoor lights 24/7, a dehumidifier, a sewing machine, an electric thermostat, and every kitchen gizmo known to man in a 90 year-old ten-room house, and we pay less for all of that in a given day than we would for a plain old cup of Joe at Starbucks.
Some months, to be sure, cost more than others. Our August bill topped out at $107.27. All in all, though, we used less than 7,000 kilowatt hours this past year and left, by any reckoning, a pretty petite carbon footprint.
I attribute this less to any moral greenness than to a hard scrabble sense of frugality. I grew up in a house where light and heat were parceled like water on a life raft, and each utility bill was opened as if it were a notice from the IRS. My parents weren’t being cheap, mind you. They were just trying to make it to the next paycheck.
Old habits die hard. When I had central air installed in my own house, I restricted it to the second and third floor, figuring that the downstairs would cool itself, which it does pretty well—except, of course, when it gets hot outside. This kind of thinking maddens my wife, who likes things cool, as does my habit of turning lights off behind and around her.
Now, however, I can simply quote Mr. Gore: “Small changes to your daily routine can add up to big changes in helping to stop global warming.”
Mr. Gore grew up in a hotel. His parents did not have to worry about utility bills. He has thus had to make his own way up to the moral high ground. More admirably still, he made this climb without sweat—literally.
Mr. Gore keeps his thermostat low in the summer. He must. According to the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, which managed to obtain his records from the Nashville Electric Services, the Gore family used more kilowatt hours in a typical 12-day stretch last year than the Cashill family did in all 12 months.
To be sure, the Gores have the bills to show for it. They paid an average of $1,359 a month in 2006, more than twice what we paid for the year 2006.
Although Mr. Gore and I are the same age, and our kids are all grown, he does admittedly have some power obligations that I only wish I had, like keeping the pool house lit and warm.
In fact, last year the Nashville Gas Company billed the Gores roughly three times more for their pool house than Missouri Gas Energy billed me for the house in which we live. Indeed, Mr. Gore may be turning me green but, alas, mostly through envy.
Reading this, my wife may be hoping that Mr. Gore becomes a radical Mormon and invites her down to Nashville for some “Big Love.” Those Gores do know how to live. Still, the $29,268 they paid in gas and electric bills may just shock her into her senses.
And speaking of Big Love, from the looks of things at the Oscars, the Gore carbo bill can’t be a whole lot lower than the carbon one.
Despite that carbon consumption—and we haven’t even talked about the corporate jets—Mr. Gore has managed to live a life he describes as “carbon neutral.” He explained that he maintains this neutrality by “purchasing verifiable reductions in CO2 elsewhere.”
One environmental blogger, defending Mr. Gore against the “smear” that his carbon footprint was “4,000,000 times higher” than the norm, describes carbon neutrality thusly: “Purchasing carbon offsets is of course a market-based solution to the externalities associated with individual use of cars and air travel and so on.”
Similarly, purchasing indulgences from the medieval church was a market-based solution to the externalities associated with the individual commission of venial and mortal sins. Hey, if you’ve got the bread, why not hire other people to say your prayers or plant your trees or, as happened routinely in the American Civil War, fight your battles?
The problem, unfortunately, is that most people don’t have Al Gore’s kind of bread. They can’t afford to take an escalator to the moral high ground. If they are going to get there, they have got to hike it themselves.
This is a hard hike to make for folks struggling to pay their utility bills, especially in a winter like this one that wasn’t clued in about global warming.
And while these people struggle, Sierra Club lawyers do their best to make the hill a little steeper. They and their cub advocates from Wash U have wormed roughly 1.3 million documents from KCP&L in the hope of finding some kind of loophole to halt construction of the Iatan 2 plant near Weston.
The best they have come up with to date is a boiler at the Iatan 1 plant that had been “upgraded without notifying regulators.” This finding so far has cost KCP&L and its customers $1.6 million—money that might have been spent on new technologies--and the issue is not close to being resolved. The utility calls the allegation “baseless” and is now suing the Sierra Club to stop the gratuitous defamation.
If I have to take sides in this showdown between A, an outfit that fills all my power needs for $50 a month and has helped given us some of the cleanest air in the civilized world or B, a bunch of snot-nosed know-it-alls from St. Louis, I choose A.
As to the larger debate on global warming, I’ll start taking the issue seriously as soon as Mr. Gore does. I have lived in Missouri long enough that you have got to “show me.”
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