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A 'virtual power plant' in your home: conservation

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I leave the water running while I do the dishes, drive a half-ton truck that gets 10 miles to the gallon and, in the energy hog display that my husband finds most annoying, I move from room to room without turning off lights behind me.

OK, so I also don't pull out the plugs every day on my appliances not currently in use.

This prelude to an Act of Contrition, while by no means complete, was inspired by recent reminders of the terrible cost we all pay for our lifestyle. It also helps to explain why conservation is such a tough sell, even in a region with as much to protect as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Let's review some recent evidence. A nuclear powerhouse that helped fuel Japan's postwar economic success was gravely crippled this spring by natural disasters. Long-term damage to the environment from this catastrophe is still not fully known. Germany was so spooked, its leaders have decided to shut down all of the nation's nuclear plants, which supply 42 percent of Germany's electricity.

Nearly three decades after the last nuclear unpleasantness, the Japan disaster came as a shock everywhere. Nukes were back in fashion. Maryland has two plants at Calvert Cliffs and was eagerly awaiting a third until the financing collapsed last year.

Sure, it's creepy to see bay water washing in to cool the plants, and odder still to see predator fish patrolling offshore for whatever half-cooked meal may be delivered in the warm outflow. But air-wise, nuclear power is clean. It is much better than coal, which has not only polluted the air of the Mid-Atlantic but left hundreds of mountains in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky with their tops lopped off to give miners better access to the coal inside.

Now, thanks to the Marcellus shale, natural gas has emerged in this region as a cleaner alternative to coal and a less costly option than building nuclear reactors. But reaching this resource has proved unexpectedly expensive for the residents of Pennsylvania, where many have leased their properties for drilling.

Streams have been fouled, groundwater tainted and patches of lush forests leveled to stubby roots. The damage to Pennsylvania has been so alarming that Maryland environmental officials have said they will not issue permits until they are certain they have protective regulations in place.

So, what to do? Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is a strong proponent of wind power, particularly off the Atlantic Coast. But those turbines are also expensive, a threat to migratory birds and unsightly to boot. Solar power is cool, so to speak. But like wind, it is not a reliable source of constant power and can't begin to meet the region's total energy needs.

Alas, there seems no magic formula for producing enough power without destroying the world around us. But there is one giant step we can all take to reduce the damage: Stop wasting our resources.

"It's like a virtual power plant waiting to be tapped into," Johanna Newman, state director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said of conservation and energy-efficiency measures.

Fears of nuclear annihilation and environmental degradation may not be enough to get us to scale back the size of our flat screen TVs. Swearing off coal-powered air-conditioning on these recent boiling hot days required more sacrifice than most could muster. Nor are we likely to shut down the two long-functioning nuclear plants at Calvert Cliffs or forsake all interest in wind and natural gas.

But our goal should be a balancing act. We can bid down some of the environmental and economic cost by offsetting our own convenience.

I can't turn off the water while washing dishes, because that's how I do it. I don't have an electric dishwasher. As for the truck, well, that only pulls a horse trailer once a week or so. Mostly, I drive a 12-year-old Honda that still does pretty well on gas mileage.

But turning off lights? That, I can do. And I can turn down the heat, turn off the air-conditioning (sometimes), and use more efficient appliances.

What we can all do is try to accept the reality that resources are limited. If nothing else good happened from the Great Recession, it should have taught us that.

Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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