Op-Ed: Where’s the Off Switch?

The U.S. Dept. of Energy says 75 percent of energy is used by “off ” appliances

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Running out of gas just plain stinks. Grab four of your buddies and try to push the car to the closest station. You are going to be worn out, sweaty, and down a few bucks for the pizza and beer you promised your friends.

There are many reasons why we love our gasoline, and some have nothing to do with American mythology. Consider that a car can travel almost two miles in under two minutes on one little cup of gasoline costing less than 20 cents. It would take about an hour for the four guys and me to push the car two miles. So, one small cup of gasoline is 30 times more useful than 1,000 pounds of guy power.

And we wonder why it is so hard to move away from a petroleum-based economy. MacArthur fellow Richard Muller’s book, “Physics for Future Presidents,” helps explain the science: Gasoline provides 15 times as much energy as an equivalent amount of TNT and 100 times as much energy as an equivalent weight of computer batteries. Liquid hydrogen — one of the darlings of alternative fuel — has only 22 percent as much energy per gallon as gasoline.

Simply put, gasoline is jam-packed with energy. But the CO2 released by oxidizing gasoline in our internal combustion engines might literally change the trajectory of life on our planet forever.

Best alternative? The electrical car, natural gas, solar and nuclear power all must jump significant scientific, engineering and/or sustainability hurdles to work on a global scale, even if we can get past the politics. Remember that the most sophisticated country on the planet still can’t decide where to store spent nuclear fuel decades after use.

This is an even bigger challenge for emerging economies. Even “clean coal” is dirty, but it is 20 times cheaper than gasoline and doesn’t involve the complexities of the Middle East. Concerned about the proliferation of coal plants in China? How can we demand global environmental citizenship when  engineers have not produced realistic options for growing economies? We are, in a word, culpable.

But before we get too sophisticated with our solutions, let’s not neglect the obvious: Using less energy is a choice for most Americans that can have an immediate impact. We don’t talk much about this because we love our big-screen TVs, climate-controlled homes, performance automobiles — I am no different.

But doing smart, little things can provide big savings right now.

A 2006 study from the Energy Saving Trust in Great Britain estimated that so-called “standby power” consumed by household appliances and computer equipment accounted for 8 percent of all domestic power consumption. And the U.S. Dept. of Energy recently estimated that 75 percent of energy used by appliances is burned off when we believe the appliance is actually “off.” Clever designers have already begun marketing solutions as complicated as a device that senses what appliances can be turned off when not in use and as simple as a multi-port power strip with one true on/off switch.

So, while we swing for the home run, let’s not forget the power of singles. Quite frankly, what we all really need right now is a good “off ” switch.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .