Monday, December 19, 2011


Marathon, Florida
24 42.40 081 N 05.68 W

I spent all of my professional career in the electric power industry.  That's not very glamorous or interesting to most people.  When I meet new people and they ask what my profession was, I reply "power engineer."  Almost always that terminates that thread of conversation.  Nevertheless, the power industry has advantages.  Foremost is job security.  People's thirst for electric power seems to be insatiable.  They use more and more as time goes on, and although they gripe about their monthly bill, most appear to be willing to pay more rather than cut back (see note below)

Boaters are no exception to the rule.  However, boaters are more active in supplying their own needs so what they do is more visible.    Tarwathie has the main engine with alternator, a portable Honda generator, a solar panel, and (sometimes) shore power, as sources of power.   Many boats, have in addition, a diesel gen-set, and one or more wind generators.

An irony is that no matter how many power generation devices one has, and how much money is spent. it is not always enough.   A friend in Vero has two very big solar panels, and a wind generator.  After several sunny, very windy days in a row, I heard him say, "I'm want to equalize my batteries, so I'm going to move to a slip for a day to use shore power to fully charge the batteries."  What?  I was amazed that his batteries were not fully charged without shore power.  Things like that lead to the label "insatiable"    It does seem to be true that boats with extensive wind and solar installations are still frequently seen running their Honda generators.   Not just occasionally, such as after cloudy and still days, but frequently.

That said, sailing cruisers are probably among the greenest people on the planet.  They barely sip energy in a world where their land based peers gulp it.  On Tarwathie, we are greener than many sailboats, but less green than others.  A few years ago in Washington DC, we spent a month in a slip with metered power.  After 30 days, we used a grand total of 12 kwh, for which we paid $3 at a price of $0.25/kwh.    My friend Walt said, "Heck. My wireless router uses more energy than that."    I also tried several of the online carbon footprint calculators.  They said that our footprint was comparable to that of people in Bangladesh.  It was only a small fraction of the typical American family footprint.  

I exclude power cruisers from the above.  Many of them use air conditioning, large screen TV, and incandescent lights, all of which take huge amounts of electricity.  Many also connect their air conditioner to a fresh water hose on the dock and use the water once-through for their air conditioners.  I've seen boats sit for weeks running and dumping fresh water continuously even though the owner never visited the boat even once.  I don't know how to quatify that energy waste but it must be a lot.

I too am insatiable.  We could reduce our electric needs 80% by simply abandoning our on board refrigerator/freezer.   Many cruisers make do without that.  Some use ice boxes. Some eschew refrigeration entirely.  But no; we're not going to cut back.  Instead, we plan to upgrade from a 50 watt solar panel to a 180 watt panel.

Note: Three recent incidents demonstrate that there really is price elasticity in electric power consumption; at least temporarily.  The power market meltdown in 2000 in the State of California was one.  The 5 week long blackout in Auckland, New Zealand was the second, and the 6 week long shortage of electricity in Juneau Alaska was the third.  Based on the historical results, if the price of electricity doubles, public consumption goes down by 30%.  Other than that, the available evidence suggests that electric consumption is inelastic.  Usage does not go down when prices increase nor go up when prices decrease.
I'll say it again.  Producing and selling electric energy  or the devices that generate electricity is perhaps one of the most dependable, profitable, and secure jobs in the world. 

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