Energy is damn cheap. There, I said it. I know this may be an unpopular opinion in times when gas prices across the country creep back up towards that freakout-inducing $4-a-gallon benchmark, and when electricity costs are hovering around record highs.
But for all the time we spend complaining about the costs, we never really stop to think about what exactly we’re getting for our money. I’d argue that we get a pretty phenomenal—even miraculous—bargain.
If you’re like most people, you get your electric bill, emit a heavy sigh, and reluctantly cut a check. You probably don’t spend too much time thinking about what you’re getting for that remarkably low price.
Let’s break it down a bit. The average American household spends about $3.78 per day on electricity. (Yes, this varies greatly by region, but let’s stand as a nation and work with averages here.) That’s about what you’d pay for a Grande Frappuccino at Starbucks, and almost certainly less than you might drop today on even the cheapest lunch special you can find. But those few dollars bring enough electricity into your home—through the engineering marvel that is our electrical grid (antiquated, though it may be), which likely funnels the current along from a power plant, where, chances are, a bunch of turbines are spinning ridiculously fast from steam released by the obscenely hot temperatures created by the combustion of coal or gas or by nuclear fission—to light your home and keep your DVR humming and your modem buzzing and your MacBook charged. And, quite possibly, to heat your water and wash your dishes and clean your clothes, too. I’d call that a good deal.
Let’s dive a little deeper. That $3.78 buys you about 31.5 kilowatt hours (or the work being done by a kilowatt in an hour). That converts to roughly 42 horsepower hours. Which is to say, for under $4 bucks-a-day you’re getting the work equivalent of 42 draft horses all busting ass for an hour. Or of five horses putting in a full 8-hour workday. Try hiring five horses for a day and see what that’d cost you.
Want to talk gas prices?
First of all, keep in mind that here in America we pay less for gas than pretty much anyone else in the industrialized Western world.
The national average today is $3.76. About what Joe America pays daily for his home’s electricity. That gallon of gasoline will move you anywhere from 8 to 55 miles, depending on your ride (let’s set aside the early adopters of plug-in electric vehicles). Looking back at the stable, that same gallon of gasoline will also do the same amount of work of 49 horses working for an hour. Maybe this will give you at least a little relief at the pump.
All told, the average American spends about $3,460 per year on energy in all its forms. That works out to under $10-a-day. About the cost of a movie ticket. And still less than a lot of young urban professionals pay for their admittedly overpriced lunches.
Sure, it’s easy to complain about electric bills and gas prices, but it’s too rare that we simply marvel at the amazing energy systems we have in this country that power our modern, hyper-connected, electrified, data-streaming lives, that keep us warm in winter and comfortable in summer, and that let us traipse about our cities, countries, and even globe in ways that were virtually unimaginable just a few generations ago.
There’s a reason that energy is so cheap, relative to the amazing amounts of work that it does for our society. The vast majority of the energy is still born of fossil fuels—of the coal, oil, and natural gas that has been forming over hundreds of millions of years, after carbon-rich plants piled up as peat and got trapped under sand and clay.
Almost all of the energy our world uses (with the slivers of exceptions in the great energy pie chart being nuclear and geothermal and tide power) is, in some form, solar power. Photovoltaics and solar thermal heating are obvious, but the sun also creates the winds that can be captured by turbines, and the sun’s rays produce biomass that can be burned.
But, most significantly up to this point, the sun created fossil fuels, as its energy was stored in those millions of years of trees and ferns that have been so-slowly compressed into potent fossil fuels. You could reasonably think of fossil fuels as a gift—a one-time gift to the human race, which we have exploited brilliantly to develop the remarkable societies and qualities of life that we enjoy today. That one-time gift is why we can keep our homes aglow and our cars chugging for under $10 bucks-a-day.
Whether energy will stay that cheap as this one-time gift starts to run out—or as we get wise to its impacts on our atmosphere and to the environmental systems we need to stay healthy and happy—depends on how quickly we develop and deploy smarter ways to harness the sun’s energy that constantly bombards our planet. That’s its perpetual gift to humans.