Energy Policies, Sane or Insane?

I’m no Electrical Engineer, I’m no expert in the field of Energy policies and so on, but I really got to rant a bit about the current situation I face. Currently, while not technically living alone yet, I am left to provide for the house; for this reason I’m caring even more about the various bills and prices, and hardware and household equipments.

A few years ago, in Italy, most of the power meters with electronic counterparts capable of reporting instant power consumption to the power company (that for the most part is still provided by the ex-state power company). About at the same time, they started providing a “free market” alternative billing, that provided discounted power for the night (or the weekend!), telling people that, after all, they consumed more power when they were at home.

True as that might be, and efficient as most of the household equipment is nowadays, a few consumer-protection organisations did enough calculations to show that it was almost a scam. It is true that there is more consumption when you’re at home than not, but it is not like there is no power consumption when you’re not home. Even if you were to properly turn off all the equipment that would otherwise go into standby (TVs, stereo, amplifiers, …) you still got a lot of things that are designed not to be turned off, ever (fridges and freezers, answering machines, programmed TV recorders), and a number of things that you’d leave on anyway (like PCs downloading stuff from P2P — there’s no denying that for almost all cases!). While there was a high discount for the price of energy during the evening, it couldn’t cover the huge increase in price during the day.

Luckily, my parents always listened to me about not accepting those prices, and up to now I had a standard, 247 billing. I say up to now because it seems like somebody in the Italian system decided that everybody should be on such billing systems. I’m still on the free-market circuit (it’s still regulated, but not as strictly as the other one), but my neighbours that are on the state-regulated system and they received last month a letter stating that the energy authority will force them to move to a day/night split billing system. They suggest to run dishwashers and washing machines during the evening to save money.

Is it just me or this sounds either positively stupid or a fraud?

  • Italy hasn’t been self-sufficient for energy production in a very long time, buying, as far as I can tell, the integration power from France; to the point that a fallen tree on the powerlines connecting us to France a few years ago caused a huge blackout throughout the country;
  • forcing every household to have the same schedule for dishwashers and washing machines is going to put additional request the system;
  • as far as I can tell, there is no reason to believe that the request of power during the day is sensibly higher than during the night; I’m actually quite sure that most of the businesses out there will keep their systems running during the night, whether they are manufacturers or third-sector offices (I have more than a couple of time-by-time customers that keep their computers running even when nobody is in office as to make sure there won’t be trouble starting up the system… I can feel why even though I don’t agree with that idea);
  • if anything, power should be cheaper to provide during the day, if we were on renewable power sources like, say, sun.. I don’t think the power production during the night is higher when you’re powered by solar panels, is it?
  • quite a lot of people in Italy are home throughout the day: unemployed, housewives, freelance self-employed people like me.. with tele-commuting starting to have its sense, this change seems to be against the trend.

All in all, I can feel that little part of my brain that I try to keep shut, the one that’s open to the suggestion of conspiracy theories, screaming that this sounds a lot like a way to force Italy into the kind of energy crisis that Enron shown the world how to play with. Probably it’s also because it reminds me that a bit of time ago there was quite a bit of a scandal about government officials having interest to move Italy to … coal power.

I sure hope to be found wrong here, but I have the uncanny feeling that it won’t happen.

At any rate I haven’t heard anything about similar changes for my current energy company, so I sure hope it won’t happen to me, having the tinderbox running all day, and neither me nor my mother leaving home during the day (I actually am more often out during the night, or the weekend, as I take time to go out with friends), would mean the power bill would end up quite steep.

While I would love to do as Eric does and have my computers at least to be entirely self-powered, that’s quite unfeasible to me, especially at the moment. What I would love to do would be having an easy way to turn off, say, the whole “media center” in my bedroom while I sleep or leave, or the extra elements in my office when I get out of it (such as the amplifier, or the monitor). Just having a power strip with a power switch is actually not enough, as the power connectors are in recesses that aren’t practical to reach daily.

USB chargers and solar backpacks

So today my Nokia E61 battery discharged (after a full charge last night) after a few hours of 3G UMTS connection through bluetooth. I think this means that battery itself is wearing out. I’m considering getting a new one, but an original one really costs too much at the moment (€48!), I’m looking around to see if I can find alternative versions.

Also, I’m thinking to get an USB charger for the E61, possibly a cradle charger. USB would mean I don’t have to hook up a 220->12V converter, which would waste energy unless I unplug it every time; the 220V conversion is already taken care of by Enterprise’s PSU. The reason why I’d like a USB cradle charger is that it’s nicer to have on the desk.

I’m also pondering about replacing the wireless mouse. The one I have now isn’t entirely bad, it’s the one in the LX700 Cordless Desktop by Logitech, but it’s ruining itself, and it’s carged through a 220V converter rather than via USB, I have no clue on why that was designed this way. If anybody can suggest me a Logitech wireless optical mouse with a USB charger cradle, I’ll be considering it seriously.

On a different level, I wonder if anybody reading my blog ever bought a solar backpack like the ones from Voltaic Systems. I’m tempted by this one before summer. I’ll have to see if they support the MacBook Pro charger, but if they do, well, maybe I can use it to power my laptop in the garden, so that I can stay for as long as I want outside rather than inside.

And yes, I do feel green today.

Environment- and Wallet-friendly

As I think I said previously in one of the many posts related to the active PFC power supply units, I’m not really one of the greenest person on the world. I’m quite pragmatic, I’ll try not to increment waste, but I don’t usually actively try to reduce use. I know, I should care more and be more active on this, but I just can’t get enough time to care about so many things on my day.

There are, though, some things I care about because they are both good for the environment and help saving money, like the active PFC units, who both reduce the power waste, and makes it cheaper to keep a box running by improving its performance (and adding to this the fact that almost all active PFC units are rated 110~250, they are usually more suitable for places like here, where the voltage is actually floating between 195 and 240).

One other thing that is both environmental savvy and good for your wallet is the usage of fluorescent lights, which consumes a lot less than the old-style incandescent lights, and by now, the lights themselves are quite cheap too! I have changed all the lights in my house already, but two (one because I need to change the whole light support, the other because, well, the bulb support is broken and the higher weight of fluorescent lights stops it from making contact, plus for some silly reason if I leave it without a bulb, the other light connected to the same line starts blinking — problem with the electric return).

Then there are the water pressurisers, which I installed on every water outlet in my house, they increase the pressure the water flows, so they not only reduce the water usage, but increasing the pressure makes it way easier to clean stuff like toothbrushes and shaving razors; they also work as raw filters if the water is full of mineral residuals (like here) as most of the time the biggest grains will get stuck instead of coming out. This actually is half a problem as you need to clean the pressurisers regularly, at least once a month here, or the water flow will be easily cut in half.

But there is again another useful thing that is often ignored: the use of rechargeable batteries. In today’s world, there are a lot of devices that use AA or AAA batteries, and I know a lot of people who regularly buy tons of batteries to run them. This is especially critical here during Christmas and Easter, as my mother loves all that silly gadgets that move, make sound or light. Lately I’ve been buying NiMh rechargeable batteries to avoid this.

I started using them for my cordless keyboard (well, the same was true for the mouse, but those were provided initially by Logitech, while the keyboard was supposed to be used with alkaline batteries), but nowadays I have those in all the remotes, in the nail-grinding tool, in the book lights and in the wireless headphones. It’s way easier to just swap them with the charged backup pair when I hear the headphones growing softer.

As with many other choices, there is an initial “high” investment, as they do cost quite more than normal alkaline batteries, but then you easily get to cover their cost when you start recharging them after the first few uses (the average recharge count is about 500). It’s a nice thing to avoid polluting with tons and tons of alkaline batteries, and nowadays there are batteries with high enough mAh to last at least as long as alakine batteries even in high-drain use cases like book lights (at least for AA batteries, whose alkaline counterpart declared average is 2850 mAh: there are AA rechargeable batteries reaching 2800, and even if the cost is even higher, I’ve seen at least a model declaring 3000 mAh).

One step further, that I’m unable to make right now, would be to recharge them with solar panels. It shouldn’t be difficult, after all you just need to invert the polarity; I haven’t seen any specific hardware for this available, if someone knows of some, I’d be glad to know. After all during summer there is a tremendous amount of sun here, I might as well make good use of it. Having it recharge my Nintendo DS and the cellphones would also be nice ;)

Really, if I could put a solar panel just under the window of my room, during summer it could easily take care of recharging my stuff, considering it’s in direct sunlight between 14:00 and 21:00 for three/four months an year. And if there is nothing to charge, it could just be an extra fan that tries to take off the heat from me…

Oh well.