Living with Cheap Power

When conserving power seems silly.

I live in what’s referred to as North Central Washington State, an area on the east side of the Cascade Mountains with a high desert like climate. If you’re familiar with Prescott or Flagstaff, Arizona, you know exactly what the weather here is like: four seasons with very little rain, some snow, and relatively mild summers and winters. Sure, summer temperatures can get over 100°F, but not often or for long. Likewise, winter temperatures can dip into single digits (F), but not often or long. It’s actually a lot like where I grew up in the New York Metro area, but with a lot less rain and a lot more sun.

Washington Map
Here’s a satellite view of the State of Washington with an X where I live. The closest city is Wenatchee (98801) about 5 air miles away.

(When I looked at that map, I realized that I live pretty darn close to the center of the state. So I Googled “What is the geographic center of Washington State?” and discovered I’m just eight or so miles away. So I really don’t know why they call this area North Central Washington when we’re really just Central Washington.)

Washington State power companies have huge investments in hydroelectric and wind generation projects. I live just 2 air miles from the Columbia River and there are two dams (Rock Island and Rocky Reach) with hydroelectric plants within 10 miles of me. Reach out another 20 or so miles and there are two more dams (Lake Chelan and Wanapum) with power plants and a huge wind/solar facility (Wild Horse).

It should come as no surprise that my area has one of the cheapest electricity rates in the country. (I’ve been told that Chelan County is actually the second cheapest in the country with Douglas County, across the river, being the cheapest (currently 2.33¢), but I haven’t confirmed that.) Our rates? 2.7¢ per kilowatt hour.

My Electricity Cost
My electric bills for the past 13 months, charted. Not sure what was going on last winter. (Note to self: talk to house sitter.) Even with those two peak months, the average for the period is only $45/month.

I see this on my monthly electric bill. While it’s true that we had a mild summer this year, my air conditioning did run. I heard it. I even cranked it up a few times. But you wouldn’t know it looking at my electric bill; it never topped $32 for any one month. Indeed, it was higher in the spring — and I still can’t figure out why. And it did get over $100 in February for January’s usage.

What’s your local electricity rate? You can look at your bill or even Google it. Or if you want a statewide average, here’s a handy table. The rate where I last lived, in Wickenburg, AZ, is currently 11.96¢/kilowatt hour — about 3.4 times what I’m paying now. And where I lived before that, in Harrington Park, NJ, the rate is currently 15.40¢/kilowatt hour — 4.7 times what I’m paying now. The national average is 12.73¢/kilowatt hour. These are all residential rates, of course. Often the rates are different for commercial and industrial users.

This is great for me — obviously. It’s wonderful to have such a low monthly electric bill. More money in my pocket, right?

The trouble is, it takes away most of my motivation to conserve power. After all, if letting the air conditioning or heat run 24/7 isn’t going to cost much more than making sure it’s turned off when I’m not around, why should I bother?

People might argue that it’s better for the environment to conserve power. Normally, I’d agree. But with most — if not all — of my power coming from renewable energy sources like hydro, wind, and solar, why conserve? These renewable energy sources are producing more than enough power for my area. And with loss in transmission, even sending the power I could save into the grid wouldn’t make a difference.

And yes, that’s the reason I didn’t cover the huge roof on my home with solar panels. There isn’t any point. I’d never save enough money to cover the cost of such an investment and there’s no need for the extra power generation in this area.

It’s also why if I bought a new car while I was living here, I’d definitely buy an electric car.

Now don’t get the idea that I waste energy. I’m the person who turns out the lights in rooms I’m not in, uses a programmable thermostat, and runs full loads in the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer. All my appliances are “Energy Star Compliant” — as if you can get them any other way. I live in a small space and although all my appliances are electric, there’s just one person using them. But still! 2.7¢/kilowatt hour? It would be difficult to get the $200+ electric bills I saw every winter and summer in Arizona.

All this might make you wonder why the country isn’t investing in more renewable energy projects. Sure, not every river can support hydro projects. And yes, wind generators can be unsightly. And all large-scale energy projects impact the environment in one way or the other — ask me about the raptor surveys I did for wind projects in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

But renewable energy resources can reduce or eliminate our dependence on dirty fuel, non-renewable energy like oil, natural gas, and coal. It can reduce the cost of energy, which would have a positive economic impact on people who struggle to pay utility bills. It would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, further reducing our use of fossil fuels and helping to clean our air.

This is a no-brainer, folks. Don’t let politicians pandering to the coal and oil industries tell you otherwise.

Now just don’t talk to me about my water bill. That’s a whole different story.

14 thoughts on “Living with Cheap Power

  1. Frankly, I’m green with envy.
    Our place has a smaller footprint than yours yet our heat and light bill varies between $2,100 and $2,640 per year. We have double glazing, a modern and efficient gas-powered domestic pressurised water and heating system which ticks all the ‘green’ boxes.
    But, we don’t have hydro in the southern UK. The Scots do have hydro but their bills are way higher than yours.
    We could have cheap gas from fracking but our politicians get the jitters. We have asked the French and Chinese to build us a big new nuke power station and that will go ahead, but take 15 years to build.
    So, I’m stuck with a bill which would make you write to your congressman.

    Enjoy your low tariffs.

    • Sorry! Not my intention to make you green or any other color.

      We’re lucky here: one of the biggest rivers in the country, good amounts of wind, and plenty of sun. It makes no sense not to harness it, especially when the area is sparsely populated and 250 wind generators on a ridge line doesn’t bother anyone. Bonus: Those damns create long, narrow lakes that are great for recreation; the power company builds and maintains free parks.

      If you can’t have all that, you’re kind of stuck. I’d take nuclear over coal any day. I’m not sure about Chinese-built nuclear, though. (And, for the record, there is a nuclear power plant within 50 miles of me at Hanford. It’s a throwback from an older era.)

    • I like the original Tesla. If they’d make a little convertible sport coupe modeled like my Honda S2000, I’d be all over it. Sedans don’t do a thing for me, no matter how luxurious or fast they are.

  2. We pay between 9 and 12 cents per kw/hr here in Juneau, and it’s 95+% hydropower. Some places in AK pay over a dollar a kw/hr, small villages which have to run diesel generators. The fuel has to be flown in or transported by barge up-river, it’s very expensive and incredibly remote. If there was ever a place where a micro-nuke plant or non-typical wind/hydro energy is called for, it’s in interior Alaska.

  3. Long nights and short days aren’t an ideal recipe for solar, that’s for sure. SE and S. Central Alaska have excellent potential for tidal generation with their huge tidal swings, but there just isn’t the population to warrant the expense even disregarding the environmental issues. There is one “run of river” no-dam hydro installation at an interior village that seems to be working well, but they have to pull it for the ice break-up. There was talk about an advanced small-scale fail-safe passively cooled modular nuke plant at one point, but the Fukashima disaster pretty much sunk that idea. There are some wind turbines going up in spots, but the lack of any road access makes transportation of those huge towers and blades more or less impossible in the more remote areas unless they have access to a deep-water port. For a lot of places it’s diesel or nothing, which is unfortunate.

    • Very unfortunate.

      An interesting small-scale solution might be solar panels with battery storage and a diesel generator backup. Summer makes all the power you need. Then when sunlight is scarce, the generator can be run when needed but it stores excess power in those batteries. So say it’s a 5 KW generator and the user is only using an average of 3 KW while it runs — send the 2 KW out to those batteries. This should make it possible to use non-peak amounts of power without firing up the generator. Probably costly to set up, though, especially when transportation of equipment is an issue.

    • Both the initial cost and the shipping just kills you in remote Alaska. It’s especially tough in the places that are still mostly subsistence lifestyle and hardly have a cash economy outside of the lucky few: teachers, shop keepers, clinic workers. The high cost of fuel for power and transportation has driven hundreds of families out of the rural towns and into the “big” cities in Alaska, whether they want to go or not.

      I still believe that the biggest hurdle we face in sustainable / green power is the lack of good battery technology. When someone FINALLY invents an affordable battery that can safely hold a charge equal to or better than the energy density of a tank of gas, THEN the fossil fuel economy will wither away and die.

    • I think Tesla is working on the battery issue. And with the kind of money they have to throw at the problem, I think they might succeed. It would be great if we could all generate and store our own power. Maybe my next home will need it! I’m thinking of living on a boat…

    • Thinking of moving already?!? Didn’t you just finish your place? BTW, I’m totally jealous of all that clear, DRY garage space and storage.

  4. Copy/paste from my last bill – roughly 12 cents kWh regular and 19 cents kWh if we go over the 1,100 base:

    Base Usage 1,100 Summer kWh @ 0.117700 $129.47
    Base-Plus Usage 121 Summer kWh @ 0.192800 $23.33

    Rates are seasonal and there’s “base usage” and “base-plus usage” if we go over the 1,100. Ouch.

    Those amounts don’t include all the extra charges that go along with the electricity bill.

    I’m also quite careful about my electricity use, only using the dishwasher, washing machine, etc. when they’re full, I don’t leave lights on and I also use LED. I run the dishwasher overnight during non-peak hours, washer and dryer are usually in the mornings or evenings before bed. I do a LOT to minimize electricity use.

    I’m amazed at how inexpensive your power is there. California is generally pretty expensive here. Yuck.

    My latest “test” is using my iPad a lot more to watch Netflix, Amazon prime, even CNN, other apps to watch certain shows, etc. rather than using my big flat-screen TV with the DirecTV and stereo attached. We’ll see if that helps at all. In theory, it should help a little, and it’s fine watching on my iPad anyway.

    • We had peak power rates in Arizona and always ran appliances like the washer, dryer, and dishwasher between 9 PM and 9 AM. Even today I feel weird about running the dishwasher in the middle of the day.

      High power rates do have the benefit of discouraging people from wasting power — and I think that was my original (although likely lost in my chatter) point. But heck, don’t shun your TV to save power. That has to be a tiny portion of your consumption. Watch Netflix on a big screen and keep the DirectTV and stereo turned off.

      And yes, California is expensive — which I why I never wanted to live there. I spend enough money on basic living expenses when I lived in the New York Metro area. Moving to Arizona cut my living expenses in half. Moving here cut them even more. But I don’t need to live in a big metro area and lots of people do.

What do you think?