As painful as this summer's record-scorching temperatures have already been, the real gnashing of teeth to be had over the brutal heat remains, of course, several weeks off. That's when our utility companies will mail us bills itemizing the cost of blasting our air conditioners a month or so earlier.
More than a few of us will have trouble making full sense of what the postman brings. For starters, our electricity is billed in kilowatt hours--a unit of measurement far more difficult to visualize than, say, a gallon of gas. Plus, the price of our power often depends not just on how much of it we use, but also the time of day or year that we use it. Of what help is a weeks-old breakdown of these variables?
The fix to a system that's high in both costs and headaches lies in connecting consumers to their consumption--showing people what they're using in a way that's clear and easy to understand. Already companies are peddling gadgets designed to tell you how much electricity your dishwasher requires, or how much juice your dryer pulls. Google has even gotten involved, offering a web-based tool called Google PowerMeter that connects to these sorts of monitoring devices to help people see and record what they're using. It's a great start, but let's take it further: let's require consumption gauges on appliances, and link them into the power grid so that they could display, in dollars and cents, just what it costs to fetch energy in real time.
A similar idea is at work in many new cars, and it's already making us more efficient users of gas. Gauges mounted in hybrid vehicles show miles per gallon performance as you drive--meaning that when that clown next you at the red light revs his engine, he's now got a sense for what it's costing him. Imagine such a thing affixed to your air conditioner in the dead of summer, ticking upward with every penny of power you use. It would no doubt convince you to make smarter use of your A.C.--and probably spare you the heat wave's second wallop come bill time.