Sunday, December 27, 2020

Successful wastefulness

Christmas Day was unique for so many reasons: First Christmas in my new house, near the end of my first full calendar year without Nigel, and because I had a strong incentive to waste electricity. I succeeded in getting through all of those.

My electricity provider has a reward scheme for customers in which every so often they’re allowed to choose a day for “free” electricity. They encourage customers to use more power, to do things that require more electricity, like using the clothes drier. Customers can also also choose among a range of days to get that free power, and when I went to the website to choose my day I saw December 25, and I chose that day. Call it my Christmas gift to myself.

My original thinking was that it might be hot on Christmas Day and I might want to run the air conditioner. At the time, I was also planning on making a roast chicken dinner, which meant using the oven. Beyond that, I hadn’t really thought about using extra power because I’ve had decades of practice conserving power, and not so much as a moment even thinking about deliberately wasting it.

I eventually decided I’d do some laundry, so I washed some towels so I could put them in the drier. This was progress. I’d planned on getting out my chilly bin (ice chest/esky) to put drinks in, but then I realised: Since I wasn’t paying for electricity, why not use the power-hungry bar fridge for the day? And, I did.

I did wash and dry those towels, plus I washed and dried another load, and also did a third, hot water wash (the washer heats the water, which uses electricity). I washed two loads of dishes in the dishwasher, and hand washed the dishes I needed to hand wash. I also ran the air conditioner all day. And I was done with all that before midnight, when my power use returned to normal.

I found through this that it’s actually not all that easy for me to deliberately waste electricity, not when I ordinarily try to be as careful with my power use as I can be. It was an interesting experience.

However, I think that encouraging people to use extra power—basically, to waste electricity—isn’t exactly a great idea. Part of why electricity companies do it is because of the powerful psychological draw the word “free” has for most people: They see the word “free” and think they’re getting a special deal. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as the saying goes, and someone, somewhere always pays for something that’s called “free”. In this case, the electricity provider charges more in its ordinary rates to easily cover the “free” power day—in other words, we pay for that day every other day.

The company could easily give a “free” day without encouraging wasteful excess power use: They could tell the customer that their highest-use day in the previous month has been “gifted” to them as a “free” day. This wouldn’t cost the company anything extra—probably less, actually—and it wouldn’t encourage wasting electricity. While it doesn’t have the power of the word “free” and the emotional appeal of choosing a “free” power day, it would still generate good emotional buy-in from customers who would feel their power company was treating them well.

Things are what they are, though, and it would have been foolish for me to walk away from a “free” day of power when it was on offer. And since I took the offer, it wouldn’t have been in my interest to restrict my electricity use. So, I didn’t do either. Difficult as it was, I managed to use extra power. When a “free” power day comes my way again, I’ll take advantage of it again, but I’m unlikely to go out of my way to use extra power: I’ll just do things like washing and drying towels.

So, yeah, I used more electricity than usual, and that was difficult for me to do. But I’d already paid for that power over time, and I’d have used it sooner or later, anyway, so I didn’t really have a “free” anything.

It turned out that being successful at wastefulness was much harder than it seemed. That’s a good thing, I think.


Roger Owen Green said...

your solution (not charge you for your most expensive day) makes a lot more sense

Arthur Schenck said...

I thought so, too! But, as has been pointed out to me, the company only makes money when people use electricity, so they have a strong financial interest in encouraging people to waste power.