I Am Thankful for Electricity, Open Windows, and Turkey

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I am thankful for fall, my electric blanket, my gas fireplace, and my fire pit. This is the time when outside temperatures are perfectly comfortable and opening my windows is a reasonable, pleasant, and fragrant possibility. I lower my electric bill for the month, fill my home with the smells of fall, and decrease my carbon footprint. Decreasing my carbon footprint has been shoved to the forefront of my thoughts as, last week, I began teaching a new North Carolina 4-H science curriculum to middle schoolers called Bioenergy; Farm Based Fuels. We began the first class by tackling the big and important word ENERGY, where it comes from, and renewable versus nonrenewable sources. Our fossil fuels take a very long time to form and that electric blanket and gas fireplace I am thankful for are primarily powered by these non-renewable fuels. Speaking of energy drains, did you realize charging cords and appliances continue to draw electricity even when not in use? Makes me realize how easy it is to become complacent in my conservation habits, how about you?

Using our own experiences my young class made up a pretend family of five, found a free carbon footprint calculator online, and answered energy use questions, giving us a number measured in tons for our yearly carbon emissions. It was clear they did not fully understand the ton; but they focused on the growing number as we added our weekly car trips and loads of laundry. They were interested in testing the calculator and decreasing or increasing their answers to see the yearly effect of things like turning out lights or using more Energy Star appliances. One student said, “My dad gets mad when we leave a room and don’t turn out the light so we should pick a low number because we do that!” In response, most of the students voted with guilty expressions to push the number higher as they begrudgingly recognized their home has too many well-lit, empty rooms. Our imaginary family was above average for the nation and way above average for the world, a big surprise to all of the students and an opportunity to remember there are still many areas in the world with less comfortable amenities and limited access to electricity. 

Of course we don’t want to be wasteful, so this gave the kids a great opportunity to be innovative in their solutions and proved an interesting exercise to study alternative fuel sources. For example, as imagined in the 80’s classic Back to the Future, the banana peel fueled “flux capacitor” may not be as far fetched today as scientists are challenged to figure out how to harness the potential energy in the leftover parts of plants produced primarily for feeding people or animals. Bio means living so biomass refers to living matter. Energy from biomass becomes bioenergy and can be converted from plant waste or produced through farming. Using photosynthesis, plants use the energy in the sun to make glucose which can be converted to ethanol. Can biomass be grown and processed into biofuel with use of energy equal to or less than the energy they produce? Are you smarter than an eighth grader? Our 4-H students will research this by growing potential biofuels like duckweed, algae, and corn in our next class, so stay tuned! My students were sent home with the same assignment I now give you. Consider your daily carbon footprint and figure out realistic ways to reduce that number, saving energy within your environment. You will benefit monthly with a decreased electric bill and our non-renewable fuel sources will last a bit longer, giving scientists time to figure out efficient and renewable sources of energy. Oh, yes, I am also thankful for ovens and turkey, Happy Thanksgiving!