How to Cut Energy Consumption: Pre-Pay for Watts

01/21/2011 11:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Twenty years ago, Elton B. Sherwin, Jr., bought a handy device: a rechargeable flashlight. He plugged it into an outlet by his workbench and within a few hours it was ready to use as soon as the situation called for it.

Only somehow, the situation never called for it. The flashlight sat there, perpetually charging, until last year, when Sherwin, an venture capital investor who had become increasingly engaged by the world's energy concerns, bought an energy meter and began to discover, outlet by outlet, the sources of his home energy bills. He inserted the meter between the flashlight and the outlet, read the result, and did some math. Sherwin had been spending $36 a year to charge a flashlight he had never used. Over the 20 years he had owned it, he had spent roughly $700 on his flashlight. Sherwin could well afford the money. For him, the real loss was that he had drained 3,600 kilowatt hours of electricity for something he had never used.

I don't know whether being a venture capital investor makes you really do your homework or if people who really do their homework tend to become VCs, but I do know that Sherwin does his homework. Starting with his own energy use (the most wasteful product in his house, he discovered, was his swimming pool pump), Sherwin set out to learn as much as he could about energy production, efficiency, and waste. The more he learned, the more he saw changes -- from business practice to regulation to investment to every outlet in every home where there might be an unused flashlight -- that could dramatically improve efficiency and reduce waste.

Sherwin's self-published book, Addicted to Energy, is the most comprehensive guide to the solutions to energy production, consumption, and waste that I've seen. It's a veritable database of ideas for policymakers, utility executives, environmental activists, and people with outlets in their homes and an uneasy sense that our thoughtless waste is tragically affecting the planet.

Before you buy your next energy-consuming product, try looking at it through one of Sherwin's scenarios. Imagine, he says, that you had to prepay for the energy a product consumed the way some cell phone plans require prepayment for talk time. For a top-loading washing machine, you might pay $350 for the machine, plus $1,100 for the power it will take to operate it for 12 years. For the front-loader next to it on the retail floor (if you'd chosen the model at, you'd pay $600 for the machine plus $170 for the power.

The fact is, whether it's the unused flashlight or the pool pump or the wasteful washing machine, we're all paying to waste power all the time. In the process, we're making the planet pay, too. It's time that, like Elton Sherwin, we all did our homework.