Time to junk your lava lamp

I'm afraid it's finally time to toss your lava lamp. Lava lamps are not just kitschy, but it turns out they are also a crime against the environment. Well, maybe not a crime.

I’m afraid it’s finally time to toss your lava lamp. Lava lamps are not just kitschy, but it turns out they are also a crime against the environment.

Well, maybe not a crime. But definitely a misdemeanour.

Marika Kitchen, an energy-conscious Whitehorse 12-year-old, just unplugged her lava lamp as part of her family’s Energy Diet Challenge for Canadian Geographic magazine. The Kitchen-Kuiacks are representing the Yukon in a national contest for families to find creative and efficient ways to cut their energy appetites.

The lava lamp may seem small, but when you add it to all the other tiny energy thieves in your house the impact can be big. The Kitchen-Kuiacks cut their power consumption by more than 200 kilowatt-hours a month by unplugging all their “standby power” devices, changing some light bulbs and turning off the lights more often. That’s more than $20 a month.

There are a surprising number of gadgets in your home that consume juice even when you aren’t using them, anything with a boxy thing attached to the plug, sleeping DVD players, idle computer printers, cordless phones, computer speakers and so on. Even some coffee makers burn 2.7 watts around the clock waiting for you to fill them up and press “on.”

Researchers at Berkeley Lab at UC Berkeley in California estimate that standby power devices consume about 10 per cent of the average family’s electricity. Not much for each family, maybe, but on a system-wide basis it suggests that there are entire dams and nuclear power plants dedicated to powering cellphone chargers that aren’t being used.

To put this in a Yukon perspective, the new third turbine at Aishihik has a capacity of 7.5 megawatts, about 10 per cent of our peak load of around 75 megawatts. It would be an exaggeration to say that we needed Aishihik’s third turbine to power the blinking lights on our DVD players, but there is a connection.

And did Marika miss her lava lamp? “Yes, I did miss it,” she says, but the energy diet project is still worth it. “I recommend it if you want to save energy.”

The Energy Diet Challenge is based on the idea we can save a lot of energy without trying too hard.

Some ecologists believe we need to more fundamentally rethink how we live and consume. But even before you sell the car and move off-grid to tend your organic barley patch, you can do a lot to cut your energy appetite.

Marika’s older sister Simone represented the Yukon in the Smarter Driving Contest two weekends ago. “Green driving,” as they call it, can add 20 per cent to your fuel efficiency (or even more if you are an aggressive driver). She won the first round of the contest, doing things like accelerating slowly, avoiding sudden stops and slowing down to avoid getting caught at red lights. Other suggestions include properly inflated tires, driving at slower speeds, turning off the air conditioning, and so on.

Simone suggests practising with a glass of water on your dashboard, or a cup of coffee from Tim Horton’s if you’re really serious (but avoid the drive-through; too much idling). If you spill it, you’re probably driving too aggressively.

But don’t do anything stupid like turn off the engine while coasting downhill. That will disable the power steering and power brakes, and if the steering wheel locks, then fuel efficiency won’t be your biggest problem.

Simone also has a suggestion that many readers (mostly, male) will find shocking: let the most efficient driver drive the car. My friend, who drives his wife and kids to the hockey rink like he’s in the Paris-Dakar rally, won’t like that idea.

The Kitchen-Kuiacks have also dramatically cut their resource consumption in other areas. Paying attention to how they cook has cut propane use by up to three pounds a week. They’re thinking of moving the freezer outside. And by turning off the water while lathering, they’ve got their showers under 10 litres a time. Experiments with a solar oven are underway.

Simone has unplugged the CD player in her bedroom, doesn’t leave her mobile charging overnight and is watching less TV. “It’s really easy,” she says, “and everyone can do it.”

It’s an impressive story. As a parent, I especially like how they’ve engaged their kids and surreptitiously taught them a lot about science, baselines and experiments.

Marika and Simone have also mastered blogs and web video, something that will be handy whether they go into business, politics or energy activism when they grow up.

You can watch the Kitchen-Kuiacks in action on video – and vote for them – on energydiet.canadiangeographic.ca.

Just remember to fully power down your computer when you’re done.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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