We take energy for granted.

When you flip the switch, the lights come on. When the thermostat reaches the red line, you hear the hum of a distant fan and warm air blows out of the grate.

For much of the world's population - and even for parts of the U.S. - that isn't the way it is. Energy is a limited commodity. There is only so much to go around in any area. When demand exceeds production, something has to give. In many places that means almost daily "brown outs," where the flow of electricity is intermittent or irregular.

In the Northwest, our abundant hydroelectric power and other resources have prevented local areas from crossing over the line of available power, but it could happen. That's where all of us can play a role. And what better time to think about it than Earth Day, being observed around the country Wednesday.

In our household it is a yearly contest to see how late in the year we can make it before we turn on the heat for the first time. Late October is usually the limit, but we have made it into November on occasion. I can recall grimly refusing to turn on the furnace, even though the thermometer on the wall was well down into the 50s. Ever sat in your kitchen drinking your morning coffee and been able to see your breath'

We do it because we don't like paying the gas bills, but the idea of conserving energy weighs on our thinking, too.

In my years around the Army I have seen plenty of families who went to extremes in the other direction.

I remember families in government quarters on Fort Wainwright, Alaska, who would set the thermostat at 75 degrees. Then, when they felt too warm, they opened the window rather than turn the darn thing down. Imagine trying to heat all of central Alaska in January.

Taking actions as simple as turning out the lights when you leave a room - or not having them on at all, if you really don't need them - can add up to significant savings over time. I used to waste a lot of hot water when I shaved, most of it just running down the drain. I tried filling the sink with hot water, and then rinsing my razor in that. It is just as convenient, and a big savings. I figure I probably save 20 or 30 gallons of hot water every week - that is water that doesn't have to be heated and doesn't add to my gas bill.

There are plenty of other things to do around the home, too. You don't have to wear a coat and look like an ice fisherman while drinking your morning coffee. Just turn the thermostat down. If you usually set it at 74 degrees, try 72, instead. If you have air conditioning, you don't need to set it in the 60s. If you resisted the chance to set the thermostat in the mid-70s over the winter, summer is your chance.

The key is for everyone to do something.

If we all do our part - no matter how small it is - then we should be able to continue taking that light switch for granted.

David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16