January 2007

Off the grid

By David Feela

It’s not like one of those holiday scenes with snow swirling, caught inside a vigorously shaken orb of winter wonder. It’s only a glass cylinder about the size of a 5-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 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 omnipresent eye. Now my meter supposedly reads itself.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with electricity involved a kite, a key, and a lightning bolt. Frankly, he was taking chances I wouldn’t take. My experiment required only a flashlight and a steady hand. I went outside at 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 a bit, just to see how much faster the meter moved.

Next I went back into the house and shut everything off. I assumed the meter would slow down, which it did, but it never stopped. I returned to the house and unplugged each and every cord from the wall; it continued to spin. Something – maybe just the pull of the moon – wouldn’t allow the meter to quit. Who knows. It’s even possible that like a hamster in its cage I was expending enough energy running back and forth to the house to keep the wheel turning.

Since 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 use a continuous flow of electricity. 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 overeats, or the power company goes belly-up,whichever comes first.

Granted, most of them 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 and I’ve finally noticed it’s time to start paying attention to how much electricity I use. The silver disc spins silently, which is probably best, for if it generated a high-pitched whine the faster it spun, I’d have all the neighborhood dogs in my yard, while the entire population of cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas would be running for their Civil Defense shelters.

The best answer for the desert Southwest still comes from the prospect of generating one’s own electricity through solar power. The technology has been around for decades, but it’s still considered a tree-hugger’s dream. I mean, I thought America would be producing efficient cars after Nixon lowered the national speed limit to 55 mph, but oil well... I guess we have to wait for the reserves to run out.

What I need at my house is a static electrician, someone who can wire the carpeting in my living room and hallway so the electrical discharge I’m constantly firing off into the unknown can be harnessed.

Maybe if I’m lucky, and if I drag my feet, I can generate enough electricity during the next cold spell to sell my surplus power back to the electric company.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.