Renewable power, clean cars, local and seasonal foods, green homes—these and other solutions to our energy crisis are evolving fast. But we can’t leave it up to innovators alone to push progress. It’s our job as consumers to adopt these solutions and bring them into the mainstream. We also need to become more conscious and efficient in the way we use energy.
Ghandi said that the earth provides enough resources to satisfy the needs of humanity, but not the greed of humanity. Today, most of us live in energy-greedy homes and drive energy-greedy cars. We don’t intend to, but we’re simply, unwittingly relying on old, polluting technologies.
The Gulf oil spill can motivate us to embrace efficiency and newer, cleaner, safer technologies. The following steps, assembled with the help of Kateri Callahan of The Alliance to Save Energy (www.ase.org) and listed in no particular order, will help you shift your lifestyle from energy-lavish to energy-lean Screw The Right Thing The simplest thing you can do to cut your electricity demands—and get the biggest environmental bang for your buck—is swap out your old incandescent light bulbs for those swirly bulbs known as CFLs (or compact fluorescents). They cost a bit more than conventional bulbs up front, but they’re 75 percent more efficient, and last 10 times as long. You end up saving between $55 and $65 over the life of the bulb. And don’t believe the myth that CFLs are harsh or unflattering to the eye—the technology has evolved and the current models on the market give off warm and mellow light. (The common mistake is that people buy CFLs that are too bright—read the label to be sure you’re buying the right wattage.)
If every home in America switched out one incandescent bulb for a CFL, we would save $600 million in avoided energy costs. In terms of CO2 savings, it would be the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road.
Seal the Deal The biggest energy-guzzler in our lives isn’t our cars, it’s our homes. Air conditioning, hot water, refrigeration, cooking appliances, lighting —all this adds up to serious energy demands. Your house emits roughly double the amount of CO2 as the car in your driveway.
Reason No. 1: it leaks. Most homes—especially old ones—have cracks in the walls and seams, they have poorly insulated attics, cellars, and doorjambs. Sealing up those cracks—caulking, weather stripping, and insulating – can improve your home’s efficiency by 20 percent or more.
Windows also leak warmth in the wintertime and cool air in the summer. Installing Low-E or Energy Star windows can lower your energy bills by an additional 30 percent.
Visit the web page of your local utility to find experts who can help you seal up your home. Also check out www.simplyinsulate.org.
Pimp Your House If you have the budget for it, investing in the best Energy Star appliances—furnaces, boilers, refrigerators, washer/dryers, diswashers, televisions, and so forth—pays off quickly. These models get anywhere from 20-50 percent better efficiency than conventional appliances.
A great first step is wrapping your water boiler with insulation. (Your air conditioner is the biggest energy guzzler in your home; your water boiler comes in second.) Another great step is buying a programmable thermostat, which automatically dials down your AC while you are out of the house or sleeping. That typically costs $100 with installation, and pays for itself in energy savings in under three months. Most home-improvement stores have experts that can guide you through these steps. The Department of Energy offers a $1500 tax incentive for investments in energy-efficient homes and appliances. Visit www.energytaxincentive.org to learn more about the federal payback you can get for greening your home.
Tap the Earth Solar panels are sexy, but many of us can’t afford them or don’t have the right sun exposure on our roofs. For anyone with a yard, a lesser-known and more affordable kind of renewable energy is geothermal.
A system of pipes is embedded in your yard roughly a 20 feet below ground, where the earth stays at a year-round temperature of between about 50 and 70 degrees. Fluid in the pipes absorbs the ground temperature and is pumped back into the house. That keeps the house the same temperature as the earth, taking pressure off of boilers and air-conditioning units—all year round they only have to heat or cool the home from a steady baseline temperature of about 57 degrees. A typical geothermal system costs several thousand dollars, but it pays back quickly in energy savings.
Get to the Meat of It Meat guzzles energy: Livestock consume roughly eighteen pounds of grains for every one pound of meat they produce. Growing those gains takes fossil fuels. Typically livestock at industrial farms eat cornfeed, which is usually loaded with petrochemical fertilizers. Another factor to consider is the energy-intensive refrigeration used during the transport and storage of meat. (Refrigeration isn’t necessary for grains and beans.)
Farm animals also produce a lot of poop, which in turn releases methane (a greenhouse gas). When you total up the energy used for feed and transportation, plus the associated methane release, livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day per capita—roughly twice the global average. One expert quoted in the New York Times said that “if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan—a Camry, say—to the ultra-efficient Prius.” If you eat meat, try designating one or more meat-free days a week.
GYO (Grow-Your-Own) Food Much of the commercial produce grown and sold in the United States travels at least 1500 miles from farm to market. That’s not counting the distance traveled by tropical and off-season fruits such as bananas, pineapples, mangos, and berries. Buying local and seasonal produce cuts down on the energy used to your transport food. (Beware of local food grown in greenhouses, which can use lots of energy for climate control.)
The most energy-conscious way to eat is from your own garden, which eliminates even the miles traveled to your market. Now in early summer, it’s the perfect time of year to start an edible garden if you haven’t already. Till up a section of your yard, add compost, and plant some veggies, herbs and fruits. It won’t take more than an afternoon to get started. If you don’t have a back yard or front yard, plant on your porch in Earth Boxes. GYO food is delicious, nutritious, fragrant, beautiful and climate-positive—win-win-win, and then some.
R-Rated Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—these practices don’t just save resources, they slash energy use. Consider plastic: The fossil fuels used to manufacture plastics account for roughly 5 percent of total annual U.S. energy consumption. That may not sound like much, but it translates into the energy equivalent of billions of gallons of oil. Producing plastic products from recycled materials rather than from scratch uses much less energy.
Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy required to produce aluminum from raw materials. Recycling a single pound of steel saves enough energy to light a conventional light bulb for 26 hours. Recycling a ton of glass saves the equivalent of about nine gallons of fuel. An added climate benefit of recycling is that it cuts methane emissions from landfills. Visit www.recyclebank.com for info on the most innovative recycling methods in the US.
Dial Back Your Miles Each American, on average, uses about 550 gallons of gasoline a year—nearly four times more than the average European. Why? We tend to drive more miles and use less public transit. The average American driver travels between thirty and forty miles per day or nearly 14,000 miles a year—the distance around the equator every two years.
If you don’t have good public transportation options in your city, try telecommuting once a week to your office. As internet connections get faster and more widely available, it’s easier plug in to meetings via Skype and iChat, connect to your company's e-mail and file-sharing system, and transfer phone calls automatically from your office to your home.
Drive Smarter The smartest move you could make to reduce your fuel economy is swap out your car for a more efficient model. But most of us can’t afford to make this switch immediately. Here are a few tips on improving your car’s efficiency: Keep your tires inflated – that can improve your gas mileage by about 5 percent (any gas-station attendant can help you with this). Also, when possible, slow down on the highway: Your fuel efficiency decreases rapidly above 60 miles per hour.
Try to avoid rapid breaking and acceleration – it uses a lot more gas than smooth driving. If it’s comfortable, roll down your windows rather than opting for AC. And if you’re carrying useless stuff in your trunk, get rid of it – the extra load drags down your fuel mileage. More info at www.drivesmarterchallenge.org.
Infrequent Flying The average domestic airplane gets about 85 miles per gallon per person – that’s great compared to the average fuel economy of our cars (roughly 25 miles per gallon). But the distances we travel by air are far greater than those we travel by road.
Last month I flew about 15,000 miles—that translates to a personal consumption of hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. Here again, we have a great argument for telecommuting to work—and for that matter, taking a “staycation.” Instead of jumping on a plane to visit relatives or a resort, opt to stay at home one weekend or holiday per season. Without all the travel stress, you will personally feel more relaxed and energized, to boot. Amanda Little has published widely on the environment, energy and technology for more than a decade. Her columns on green politics and innovation have appeared in Grist.org, Salon.com and Outside magazine. Her articles have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, New York, O Magazine and the Washington Post. She lives with her husband and daughter in Nashville, Tennessee. For more on Amanda Little and her book POWER TRIP: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy, visit www.amandalittle.com and follow her on twitter @littletrip