Sunday, January 15, 2012

Solar power loses to electrical billing

The latest buzz in DoD is how we plan to cut the budget and expenses. You would think this would be focused mainly on military-type things, like tanks, ships, number of people, etc. However, it's being felt all over, including on military housing.

I happen to live on post, a Navy guy adrift in a sea of Army officers (although it works out fine, since Navy football continues to win against Army). Right after my family moved in, we started receiving letters from Minot Corporation about our power use. The company that manages our housing (Balfour Beatty), in the name of saving money, had contracted out our power consumption to Minot. In three months we would be given a certain number of kilowatt hours to spend each month. If we went over, we would have to pay the difference; under, and we'd get a check.

Now, I'm a pretty conservative power user. My family keeps the house at a decent temperature, and my wife and I don't let the kids leave the lights on or stuff running. We had three months of "mock" billing before the real thing. The first month came: 10 dollar credit. Go us! Then the second month was exceptionally hot, and despite keeping the house at 70 degrees, we got an 80 dollar "bill."

Like the good engineer that I am, I busted out the calculator and looked at what was going on. Minot was assigning the same number of kilowatt hours per month. Never mind that the summer months are always worse than the winter months in the south for electricity, hence companies charging more per kilowatt hour. Apparently physics and climate realities don't matter to Minot. I was particularly furious because when you live on base you give away your entire BAH, which out in town would have covered all expenses.

Word of warning to anyone thinking that living on base is free: you may be in for a surprise on your electric bill.

Now, if I was worried about electricity usage, I would have installed solar panels on all homes. First, since the government owns the homes, they know the panels will stay installed for 15+ years. Even if they tear down the homes and rebuild, they can always recapitalize the panels. Since solar panels break even at about the seven year mark, the government would actually be making money in the long run, while promoting green energy and all those other environmentally friendly concepts that crunchy-granola type environmental engineers love.

Win-win all around. Instead, lets just soak some dependent families.

I found a way to beat the system though. I began by making a list of everything that was plugged into the wall. Then I started researching exactly how much electricity each item consumed. Then I ran an analysis of what I could turn off and how much it would save vs. potential cost (like, if you turn off your fridge and all the food goes bad, you lose more than you save in electricity).

I was shocked to find that our cable box and TV suck a ton of power. The NY Time ran and article last year about it. It's apparently like having a second refrigerator in your house, except it brings you football instead of the nachos and cheese dip. I decided to experiment: I plugged the TV, cable box, and wireless internet router into one battery-backup power strip. Then I posted instructions to unplug that power strip whenever we were leaving the house for more than an hour, and to unplug it at night right before we went to sleep. I posted the instructions only because I would forget otherwise, and it would help remind my wife while I'm deployed.

Our electrical bill drastically plummeted. Now Minot is sending me checks every month.

I don't foresee the trend of charging on-base housing folks changing. At some point all government housing will get privatized, and they will be putting everyone on this ridiculous electrical billing procedure, despite taking my entire amount of BAH that should be covering the expenses. Since you can't expect the government to do something smart like install solar panels, you'll need to find ways to beat them at the game, or else you'll be shelling out dollars like there is no tomorrow.