Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Itemized Bills
distributed 7/25/03 - ©2003

Imagine going to a grocery store where no prices are marked on the shelves. You fill your shopping cart with the stuff on your shopping list (and probably a few others), then head for the checkout line. There, a clerk scans each item, and presents you, not with a detailed receipt, but only with the grand total for your purchases.

The bill at the cash register seems awfully high, but how do you know how to cut it back? Is there a price difference between different brands of soup? How expensive is that package of frozen lasagna? What are the relative costs of hamburger and tofu? (Tofu is definitely better for your health and for the planet!)

How is it possible to be a responsible shopper if you don't know the costs of what you're buying?

I've heard that analogy used to describe the way we purchase electricity.

In our homes, offices and churches, we have a multitude of electrical devices. Each month, the utility company sends us a bill for the total amount of power that they used, but we have no way of knowing which appliances used how much energy.

Financially, that monthly bill can come as a big shock. For those of us who want to practice good energy stewardship, a big bill can also be a sign of excessive or wasteful energy use, but it doesn't provides any detailed information about how to trim the costs

If the costs are amorphous, we have little incentive or guidance in dealing with the particulars. It is so easy to leave the computer on overnight, to run the air conditioner on a slightly warm day, or to put a nice bright bulb in a security light outside. Does it really make all that much difference? Who's to know?

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One of the congregations that I work with closely has three standard-size refrigerators, and they want to get rid of at least one of them. The food bank has an ancient clunker (basic white, with a rounded top -- I'm guessing that it must be a late 1950's model). The kitchen has a larger "harvest gold" model (from the early 1980s?) that is showing signs of hard use. And then there is an "avocado green" one of about the same age that was donated by another agency, which has been sitting unplugged in the hall.

Which one should be sent to the refrigerator graveyard (with the proper capture of ozone-destroying Freon on the way)? That elderly white one certainly seems like the best bet for retirement.

That's when I made use of a handy gadget that Eco-Justice Ministries purchased recently. It is a small electric meter that measures the energy use of a single appliance. Over a period of a few days, I plugged in each of the three refrigerators, and logged how much electricity each one sucked up. The results were surprising.

At current energy prices, the electricity for the gold refrigerator in the kitchen costs about $78 per year. That elderly one in the food bank costs $110. And the green one that we assumed would replace the oldest one? It demands an amazing $160 per year in electricity.

The appliance disposal team is coming for the green monster next week.

Even the best of the three is an energy hog. The newest generation of refrigerators uses technology that is enormously more efficient. A standard model from a basic appliance store now uses only $35 worth of electricity per year. The energy savings from replacing the two remaining units at the church would cover the purchase prices in 7 to 10 years. The church administrators are considering that investment.

Knowing the costs helped a local church make an environmentally and fiscally responsible decision.

Let me know if you'd like information on buying, or borrowing, the little energy meter.

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I spoke yesterday with a colleague who is routinely able to help churches trim their energy bills by 20%. A combination of common sense, some awareness of relative costs, and a few specialized tools can make a big difference in good stewardship.

In almost every community, the resources are available to implement those sorts of energy savings. The local utility company will do an energy audit at low cost, or sometime for free. Specialized contractors can evaluate complex issues, and propose specialized solutions.

Options that used to be obscure are now well-known and reliable. (Replace those incandescent light bulbs with compact florescents. The savings can be dramatic.)

Some very simple steps can make a big difference. Turn things off when they're not in use. Enable all the power-saving features on your computer. Set the thermostat 2 degrees warmer in the summer, or cooler in the winter.

The way we buy electricity means that we do have to stop and think about how to save money and save resources. But the necessary information and resources are there.

Use them.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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