Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The philosophy of buying in bulk

This morning on the CBC 740 Radio news I heard that earlier this week the cost of electricity skyrocketed to the capped price of $999 per megaWatt hour for brief periods of high demand. This caused a "Level 1" advisory to be sent out, basically asking high consumers of electricity to voluntarily reduce or alter their pattern of usage to avoid undue demand on the power grid at any given time.

Demand has been higher lately, due to the much higher than average temperatures. People are using more electricity for air conditioners and fans. Coupled with the higher demand is the reduced generating capacity, because apparently some of the power plants shut down completely or at least decrease their power output as they do equipment maintenance and repair in the Summer, which is usually a lower-demand season than the Winter around here.

While the matter was being discussed on the CBC this morning, the question arose as to how soon we could expect to see the result of these price spikes on our electricity bills. The answer was as soon as next month. As a person who is trying to reduce electricity consumption, this really bugged me. Essentially, our household, which currently uses 34.6% of the North American average of electricity, will be paying for industries and households who have actually increased their electrical consumption! Adding salt to the wound is that I'm pretty sure that large industrial consumers of electricty (i.e., those using over 250 000 kWh/year) actually get a discounted rate to start with, because they 'buy in bulk.' I have emailed EPCOR today to ask them about this, because while they publish the residential regulated rate on their website (9.602 cents/kWh for July 2007), they do not publish the commercial customer rate. It will be interesting to see if they even respond to my email.

What does it say about a society that thinks it's normal to give discounts to consumers who consume in bulk quantities?

In the case of electrical consumption under the current price structure, those who use more are rewarded (i.e., get to use more while paying less) and those who use less are punished (i.e., strive to use less but have to pay for those who are using more). When resources are limited, as fossil fuels are, this strategy of giving discounts for bulk consumption seems ludicrous at best and obscene at worst. It's like we as a society are collectively being rewarded for gorging ourselves. Picture that guy (or gal) we've all seen on TV stuffing his (or her) face with the 107th hot dog in record time until there just ain't no more hot dogs.

It seems to me it would be much more fair to allot everyone (or every household) a certain amount of electricity they could use for a low base price, and then as their consumption rose, the price would also increase. Sort of like our taxes. Instead of tax brackets you would have electricity brackets. Those who used more would pay a premium for consuming more of a limited resource. Households would be able to afford to heat and light their house for a reasonable price, but if they wanted to fire up four computers, a 52 inch plasma TV and set the central A/C to 17 degrees or the furnace to 24 degrees (Celsius), they would pay for the privilege. And it is a priviledge, not a right.

This isn't my original idea (I dont' get very many of those) - I read about it at Greenpa's site, but it seems very fair and just. You would then be rewarding people for being frugal and stewardly, instead of rewarding greed and excess. Yes, I'm putting emotionally and morally loaded words in there, because I think it is a moral issue: It is wrong to waste.

By no means am I a paragon of virtue in this regard. I waste a lot of stuff. I'm trying to waste less stuff, but it is inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I like convenience and comfort just as much as the next person. And the things that are the easiest to waste are things that have a low monetary cost or that seem like they could never run out. But more and more we are finding that the things we thought were unlimited (and therefore 'cheap') do run out, like fresh, clean water and vast tracts of forest and Atlantic cod and easily extractable oil and unpolluted air. To name a few.

(Photo courtesy

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