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Thanksgiving – We are All Connected

On Thanksgiving step outside and share your gratitude.

This Thanksgiving I am mindful that people are part of nature not separate from it. Everything on Earth is worthy of our reverence and gratitude.

A few weeks ago, after an inspirational morning at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in California, I knew that I wanted to write about the interconnectedness of nature (yes that includes people) for my Thanksgiving post this year.

It all began with a bowl of oatmeal.

But, before we get to the oatmeal, a bit of background may be useful.

My home is on the California Central Coast in the midst of one of the few remaining swaths of Monterey pine forest. Before we bought our home, the mostly wild yard had been untended for years so invasive plants had been encroaching unimpeded and some plants that had been purposefully planted had gotten out of control. Somehow, I got the possibly ridiculous and crazy idea in my head that we could restore our tiny piece of land and then it could encourage the neighboring land to go native.

With limited knowledge, a shovel and some clippers I set about removing the few invasive plants that I could identify. The flip side of invasive plants is native plants, which I am trying to learn about so we can encourage natives growing in our yard and plant others.

So, when I read about an upcoming event called the Chumash Kitchen at the botanical garden, I signed up my spouse and me. We were excited to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from two Chumash women (Jeanette and Violet) who are descendants of the people who have been living on the California Central Coast for thousands of years and we were looking forward to tasting some dishes made from locally foraged and harvested foods.

The Chumash Kitchen

The day was warm with just a slight chill and the skies were cloudy and gray.

We arrived just in time for breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed to find that breakfast was oatmeal (I think it had ground acorns, too) because I seriously dislike oatmeal and have since I was a little kid. Not to be deterred from fully participating, I ladled a small portion into my bowl and topped it with several heaping spoonfuls of cut up local apple pieces. I was thankful to see there was coffee and poured myself a mug.

Group Photo Beneath Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA
Group Photo Beneath an Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After breakfast, the group headed out for a hike up to a sacred Chumash site. Along the way, one of the young participants introduced us to an oak tree that she and others had gathered acorns under two days before. At a magnificent and ancient oak tree, we stopped to admire its beauty and sense of history and to pose for a group photo.

Sacred Grinding Stones

A short uphill hike brought us to a small open area with huge boulders embedded in the ground. Scattered across the boulders were round indentations that had been created by the Chumash people who had been grinding acorns here for thousands of years. This is a sacred site for the Chumash people who live here now and we were asked not to take photos of the stones.

By now, we were all warmed up and feeling fortunate that the cloudy sky was keeping the sun from beating down on our heads.

Jeanette began speaking of thankfulness and history and telling stories in a quiet and melodious voice. I remember her looking up at the cloudy sky, smiling, and saying, “The Mother is smiling on us this morning.” or something very close to that. What a delightful way of expressing gratitude for clouds.

View Looking Away from Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA
View Looking Away from the Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

While Jeanette was speaking, Violet circumnavigated the group carrying a smoldering bunch of white sage. She paused at each person and using her hand wafted the smoke over us. This simple act seemed to connect us all even though many of us did not know each other. I came away with the understanding that white sage is honored for its healing qualities and is used for blessing people.

Before making our way back down the hill, we were each given the opportunity to make an offering by placing a small pinch of tobacco leaves into one of the grinding holes and saying a prayer (out loud if we wanted to). My prayer (said silently) was that my children and everyone else’s children would have a habitable planet to live on in years to come.

Oak Trees and Acorns

Back at the garden event center, while Violet and a small contingent of volunteers were preparing lunch in the kitchen, we learned about the history of oak trees over thousands of years and Jeanette entertained us with stories.

Acorns were and still are an important food for Chumash people. We learned from Jeanette that some acorns are always left under the oak trees for those who do not speak. She referred to people, plants, trees, and animals as her kin. Hearing her speak with such respect and reverence for every living thing struck a chord in me. It feels right.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Volunteers Preparing Acorns
Volunteers of All Ages Preparing Acorns for the Meals to be Served at the Chumash Kitchen Event – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
A Locally Foraged and Harvested Lunch

Before the lunch meal was served, Violet described the locally foraged and harvested ingredients and how they were prepared. I admit that once the mouth-watering plate of food was placed in front of me, I could not remember everything that had gone into making it.

I do remember a few things like the silky feel of the acorn gravy that had been ladled over a stuffed and roasted acorn squash. The Manzanita vinaigrette was tart and fragrant. Who knew you could make salad dressing from a Manzanita plant? The sautéed greens looking suspiciously like kale were tasty with a sort of acidic twang. I think ancient Chumash people probably did not have ice cream, but it was delicious melting on top of an apple crumble made with local apples and garnished with acorn dust.

The gathering ended with a traveling song. Feeling replete and uplifted we headed home.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

The reverence and gratitude that Violet and Jeanette had expressed for, well, everything stayed with me. So did the way they had spoken of the non-human members of nature as their kin and neighbors.

I frequently talk to trees, houseplants, and the variety of animals wandering and flying through our yard. However, I do not think I was conversing with them as peers, neighbors, or potential allies.

During the week following the event, I knew that something had shifted in my relationship with nature when I found myself apologizing to the ice plant that I was removing from my yard because it was choking out everything else. Another day, when a big buck deer wandered into the yard while I was working, I politely asked him if he would come back later. As he sauntered away, I could almost hear him thinking, “I was just passing through anyway.” When I noticed that somebody was living beneath and chewing on the roots of our lion’s tail plant, I suggested to the unseen neighbor that we try to work things out (the jury is still out on that one).

Although I do not fully understand how the diversity of life on Earth makes Earth, well, Earth, I do believe that everything connects somehow. People do not have dominion over nature we are part of it.

This year, I propose that we enlarge our gratitude circle beyond the family and friends gathered around our Thanksgiving tables to the whole of nature.

On Thanksgiving, take the opportunity to step outside for a few minutes or a long time and give thanks to a tree, a bird, a spider, a flower, a lake, a plant, or a mountain. How do you give thanks to a tree? It is up to you. Perhaps with a gentle hug, a prayer, a gift of water, listening, or just saying thank you. You get the idea.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.” – David Suzuki

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Give Thanks in Block Letters with Fall Leaves, Acorns, and Pine Cones – Photo Credit iStock/jenifoto

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Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Electric

Everyone can elect to use energy efficiently.

Understanding your electric and natural gas bills could turn you into a frugal energy user and unleash your inner climate activist.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels and each one of us has a responsibility (if we choose to accept it) to do our part. Decreasing energy consumption in our homes is something everyone can do to help. When millions of people take a small action like switching to LED light bulbs, the energy savings can really add up.

This is the second in a 2-part post exploring how you can use your energy bills to educate yourself about your energy use and make informed decisions about when and how much energy you use in your home.

In the first post, Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Natural Gas, readers confronted the facts about the ubiquity of fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States and learned how much natural gas common appliances use, how to read and understand natural gas bills, and had an opportunity to establish a usage reduction goal.

This post is devoted to giving you a high-level overview of electricity use in the United States, helping you unravel the mysteries of your electric bill, and encouraging you to set your own electricity reduction goal.

Electricity Generation in the United States High-Level Overview

Currently, in the United States, power plants generate 65% of their electricity by burning fossil fuels (34% natural gas, 30% coal, 1% petroleum). Nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewable energy make up the remaining 35% of electricity generation.1

Coal Power Plant with Piles of Coal on the Edge of a Lake
Coal Power Plant with Piles of Coal on the Edge of a Lake – Photo Credit Dreamstime/Maria Dryfhout

Fossil fuel burning power plants are expensive to ramp up and down so operators try to run these baseload plants at levels where they can generate and distribute a consistent amount of electricity continually.

During peak demand times or when electricity use spikes unexpectedly, electric companies bring their peaker plants online and/or purchase electricity from other power providers with excess capacity. This is a bad deal all around. Peaker plants are often the least efficient, most expensive, and worst polluting facilities.

What is a Kilowatt-Hour of Electricity?

Residential electricity is billed by the kilowatt-hour so you need to understand what that means.

Technically a kilowatt-hour is a measure of electrical energy equivalent to a power consumption of 1,000 watts for 1 hour.2 That begs the question, “What is a watt?” which then leads to “What is a joule?” and so on. For the purposes of this post, we will simplify matters by saying a watt is a measure of the operating power of an appliance or a piece of equipment.

You can find the wattage of your electric appliances and equipment on product labels, in user guides, and on the Internet. The examples below illustrate how long you could use several common electrical items for a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

  • Dry your hair for 37.5 minutes or about 5 minutes a day for 1 week using a 1600-watt hair dryer.
  • Cool your home for about 15 minutes using a 3500-watt central air conditioning system or for about 42 minutes using a 1400-watt window unit.
  • Brew 6 to 7 pots of coffee each taking 10 minutes using a 900-watt automatic drip coffee maker (fewer pots if you leave the machine on to keep the coffee warm).
  • Use a 1200-watt microwave oven for about 10 minutes a day for 5 days.
  • Watch a 48-watt television for 3 hours a day for 1 week (less time if you have a cable box and/or external speakers).

You can do the math for any electrical item in your home using simple equations.

If your appliance runs at x watts, it will run for 1000/X hour.

1600-watt hair dryer example where X is 1600.

1000/1600= .625 hour

.625 hour × 60 minutes/hour=37.5 minutes

What Does a Kilowatt-Hour of Electricity Cost?

In 2016, the average price of residential electricity in the United States was 12.55¢ per kWh. Hawaii had the highest average cost of 23.87¢ per kWh and Louisiana the lowest at 7.41¢. The average price in California where I live was 18.28¢ per kWh.3, 4

Mountain Top Removal to Extract Coal - Photo Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment
The Obvious but Hidden Cost of Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining – Photo Credit Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment

How Much Electricity Does the Average Household Use?

In 2016, the average residential electricity consumption was 897 kWh per month or 10,766 kWh for the year. Louisiana had the highest consumption at 14,881 kWh for the year and Hawaii had the lowest at 6,061 kWh.5

This figure varies widely across the country depending on where you live, the weather, and the number, type, and efficiency of the electric appliances and equipment you use in your home. For instance, in my region, the average monthly electricity use is about 417 kWh in the summer and 474 kWh during the winter.6

What Can You Learn from Reading Your Electric Bill?

I live on the California Central Coast and my electric company is PG&E. After looking at electric bills for electric companies in several states, I concluded that there is a fair amount of variability but the basics are similar.

For this section, you will need a copy of your electric bill from last December. If you do not have a paper or digital copy, most if not all electric companies, make bills available online. If you need to, take a break to go sign up, retrieve your bill, and then come back.

Electric Bill with Pen and Calculator - Photo Credit iStock/Niyazz

Now look at your bill and find the following or similar items.

Rate

This field indicates what rate schedule is being used to calculate your bill. You can look up rate schedules on your electric company’s website.

Climate Zone

Your home’s location places you in a climate zone that electric companies use to estimate how much electricity you and other customers in the same area will use during various times of the day and during different seasons of the year.

Baseline Allowance

The climate zone assigned to your home is used to determine your baseline allowance, which is an amount of electricity intended to cover about 50-70% of an average household’s use. The baseline is adjusted seasonally. Not all electric companies use baseline allowances.

For example, our town is in the climate zone that covers most of the California coast and a short distance inland. Here the baseline is 7 kWh/day (about 210 kWh/month) May through October and 8.5 kWh/day (about 255 kWh/month) November through April.7

Billing Period

The number of days in the billing period is used in calculations on your bill.

Meter Reading

Your electricity usage is calculated by subtracting the previous month’s meter reading from the current month. The difference is the number of kilowatt- hours you used.

Electricity Charges

Here is where it gets tricky. Electric companies often charge different rates at different times of the day and/or charge higher rates if your consumption is above a certain number of kilowatt-hours.

Tiered Rates

If you are on a tiered rate schedule, your per kWh rate will vary depending on your overall electricity consumption. Your baseline allocation kWh is charged at the lowest per kWh rate and you pay more for each kWh over the baseline.

For example, PG&E customers on a tiered rate plan pay 20¢ per kWh for tier 1 (baseline allocation), 28¢ per kWh for tier 2 (100-400% above baseline), and a 40¢ per kWh high usage surcharge (above 400%). The baseline allowance of kWh is different in the winter and summer, but the per kWh rate stays the same.7

Time-of-Use Rates

For customers on time-of-use schedules, you will pay the highest per kWh rate during peak demand (usually during the workweek from the late afternoon to mid-evening) and pay a lower per kWh rate during off-peak hours. Some companies have an interim rate for part peak hours (usually just before or after peak hours). The times considered to be in the peak demand period vary by company.

For instance, during the winter season, PG&E customers on the time-of-use rate schedule pay 23¢ per kWh from 4:00-9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 21¢ per kWh for electricity consumed at all other times and all weekend. When the summer season begins in May, rates will go up to 36¢ and 26¢ respectively.7

State Regulatory Fee

As a customer, you are funding the public utilities commission that regulates electric companies in your state.

Other Fees & Taxes

Some costs are spread across all customers like financial assistance for low-income customers, efficiency programs, and rebates. States and/or municipalities may charge tax. In California, we are billed every month for nuclear power plant decommissioning and the cost of the bonds issued to buy electricity during our energy crisis in 2001.

Electricity Usage History

Hopefully, your bill will have a handy chart that shows your total electricity used each month over the past twelve months and a comparison with the same month in the prior year.

Messages

It is worth taking a few seconds to read the messages section as it contains information about new programs, rate changes, and rebates.

Establish Your Electricity Reduction Goal

Now that you are acquainted with your electric bill and your electricity use for last December, you are ready to set a reduction goal for this December and decide what you are going to do to achieve it.

Minimizing your electricity use during peak demand times is perhaps the most impactful action you can take in your own home. Keeping peaker plants offline is good for the environment, people’s health, and your wallet.

To help you get your creative juices flowing below are several no-cost ideas about what you can do to minimize electricity use during peak demand times. These actions may seem small and insignificant but if millions of people do them, it makes a significant impact.

  • Defrost food for dinner in the microwave oven while you are eating breakfast or reading the morning paper.
  • Turn off electronics when you are not using them. Most electronics come to life as soon as you turn them on and computers (even older models) only take a few minutes to boot.
  • Bosch DishwasherTurn your dishwasher on after 9:00 p.m. by using the delay button (if it has one) or turning the machine on just before you go to bed.
  • Leave your outdoor lights off completely or at least until after 9:00 p.m. If you are expecting guests after dark, turn the lights on near their arrival time and off after they do arrive.
  • During the summer, especially when it is hotter than usual, leave your air conditioning off or set it several degrees warmer than you normally would between 4:00-9:00 p.m. Use a portable fan in the room you are occupying (moving air helps you feel cooler).

If you are looking for more ideas, try reading Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Savings Tips and Tackle Energy Vampires and Stop Phantom Power.

Once you get in the habit of doing things that reduce your electricity and natural gas consumption, they become routine, meaning you do them without really thinking about it.

I hope this 2-part post has helped you become conversant with your energy bills and inspired you to challenge yourself to use electricity and natural gas sparingly and efficiently as if your life depended on it, which it does.

For readers interested in learning more about fossil fuel energy, electricity, and environmental issues, you will find links to articles and reports in the resources section.

Featured Image at Top: Coal Mining Operation in Tuscaloosa, AL – Photo Credit iStock/toddmedia

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References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. Kilowatt Hour – Wikipedia
  3. Electricity Explained: Factors Affecting Electricity Prices – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  4. California Electric and Gas Utility Cost Report, California Public Utilities Commission, April 2017
  5. How much electricity does an American home use? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  6. PG&E Residential Accounts 2016 Zone 5 (non-CARE) – California Public Utilities Commission
  7. E-1 Residential Services – Pacific Gas and Electric Company, 08/18/17

Resources