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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Solar Pig

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Linda Tatelbaum describes the dilemma she faced when her son wanted a computer. She didn't want to say no, but her house is powered by solar electricity, and the computer was using more than its fair share.


CURWOOD: Up in rural Maine commentator Linda Tatelbaum has a pig that poses a dietary dilemma, but hers eats kilowatts, not slop. It's one of the little ironies that can complicate life despite one's best efforts to make it simple.

TATELBAUM: When our son Noah was 10, he wanted a computer. My husband tried to find a low power consumption model, but one industry techie after another advised him: just plug it in. Well, we couldn't just plug it in. We have solar electricity, which is like having a non-interest-bearing bank account and no credit. You put in, you take out. When it's gone, it's gone.

With grid power, who thinks about limits? You can make unlimited withdrawals without even calling the bank. We didn't have any electricity at all when we first came to Maine in 1977. We built one of those hippie-style houses with lots of south-facing glass for solar heat. But after 4 years of hauling water and lighting with kerosene, solar electricity became an appealing alternative.

Watching 2-year-old Noah toddling around a house with oil lamps clinched the decision. Soon we had a water pump and lights, and we could use power tools to add on to our 1-room house. Noah had no problem growing up in the family tradition of solar budgeting. That first computer he got was an energy-saving laptop.

But now Noah's in college, and last year, when he purchased a big, new computer, he wasn't thinking about efficiency. He'd just plug it into the wall like everyone else in his dorm. Come summer, he brought it home, banking on the bountiful solstice sun. But it turns out his new computer, which we call “the pig,” eats as much in 3 hours as it takes to power the refrigerator for a whole day. To make matters worse, while he was gone, the oak tree by his bedroom got bigger, same as he did, shading the solar panels in the afternoon. A month of rain didn't help, either.

We'd nearly regressed to candles when we came to a decision: our son could stay, but either the tree or the computer would have to go. Luckily fall arrived. Noah and the pig returned to college and the oak leaves dropped. Now here it is, summer again. Noah knows we don't have the heart to cut down the oak. So this year, he's come up with a different solution. The pig, after all, really has earned its keep. It taught Noah enough that he's off to a summer job in Silicon Valley, to build up his own bank account. The pig will stay home with us. In its box. Unplugged.

CURWOOD: Commentator Linda Tatelbaum lives in Appleton, Maine. Her new book is called Writer on the Rock: Moving the Impossible.



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