Archive for January, 2011

Energy Showdown finale

The 2010 Energy Showdown is now officially over and we kinda won! Okay, we didn’t win the grand prize, but we won the 3rd and 4th quarter prizes, saved about $300, and expect to save more in 2011. As a whole, participants reduced usage by over 11 megaWatt-hours (that’s over 11,000 kWh!). Since Indiana’s electricity is produced almost entirely by coal, that’s a reduction of 22,000 lbs of CO2!

At the SIREN meeting this week, some of the other families talked about their experience in the showdown. One thing that struck me was the diversity. The 1st quarter winners were a married couple who’ve been slowly improving their house over the past 5-6 years. The 2nd quarter (and eventual overall) winners were a family of four, who didn’t want to make any significant lifestyle changes. The 3rd and 4th quarter winners were us, who have pretty good habits, but were willing to try some pretty crazy stuff.

Despite our willingness to try things out, in the end, we didn’t have to do anything particularly difficult. Getting a new refrigerator was painless, as was caulking and sealing areas around the windows. Line drying was sometimes annoying, but wasn’t particularly bad. We’ve decided that 56 degrees is too cold, but we’ve discovered that we’re comfortable at 59.

I think that the biggest obstacle for most people to reduce their consumption isn’t the difficulty or discomfort, but the fact that usage is pretty much invisible. There are so many things that use electricity, and in such a hidden way, that it’s really difficult to know what your biggest energy hogs are. From the perspective of activities, it’s also difficult to know what things cost. How much electricity do you actually use to watch a movie? What if it’s streaming through a computer? How does that compare to playing video games? It’s hard to tell.

I think that if people had a sense of how much electricity (and money) they could actually save by changing their behavior, they’d do it. If my non-eco friends found out that it cost twice as much to watch a movie on TV as through their laptop, I think a lot of them would switch. I’ve talked about this some before, but I think it bears repeating. It doesn’t take crazy lifestyle changes or lots of money to make a significant dent (over 20%) in usage. You just have to spend the time to make the consequences of your activities more visible, at least to you. One way to start is to use a Kill-A-Watt to identify the appliances in your house that are the energy hogs (e.g. refrigerator, space heater) and look at the Energy Star ratings to know what benefits you might get from upgrading – as well as thinking about cutting usage entirely if you can (e.g. ditch that extra refrigerator in the garage).

It’s also extremely useful to track daily electrical usage overall to get a sense of your normal usage. This helps capture some of that hidden electrical usage – like water heaters, dryers, and furnaces that don’t plug into regular outlets – and also gives a baseline for comparing when you make changes. If you lower your thermostat from 59 to 56, how much energy do you save? We found it saved about 0.5 kWh/day and decided that wasn’t really worth it for the added discomfort. What if you line dry your clothes instead of using the dryer? We found it saved nearly 6 kWh/use and decided that was TOTALLY worth it (although we still sometimes use the dryer when it’s raining or freezing outside).

There are a lot of painless ways to reduce electrical usage but it can be hard to know where to start and which changes to embrace. With that in mind, Maggie and I are preparing to teach a class in energy conservation through People’s University (a city program where anyone can offer a class for their fellow citizens) and we’re also planning to publish an e-book for people who want to try it at home on their own. The class will meet two hours a week for four weeks and have homework assignments in between – like tracking daily electrical usage at the meter and measuring the most commonly used appliances with a Kill-A-Watt. Our biggest goal will be teaching people how to study their own electrical usage and figure out the best way to cut back, since it’s different for everyone. Sure, we can all do a better job turning off the lights when we leave the house and making sure our houses are well-insulated but there are a lot of other small changes to be made and we want to help people understand which will work best for them.

If the Energy Showdown participants in Bloomington were able to reduce energy usage by 11 megaWatt-hours in a year, just think of what it could look like if we all made an effort! And you don’t have to turn off your water heater or your air conditioning, we promise.

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The Last Wild Giraffe Herd in Western Africa

We interrupt your regular greencouple postings for an update from Maggie, who is doing volunteer work in Niger.

peekaboo_giraffe_webI’ve been in Niger for almost a week and I’m starting to adapt. Several people have told me that Niamey is the calmest capital city in all of Africa but it feels pretty active and chaotic to me so I’ve enjoyed being able to get out to the villages and visit the bush country. Today I was very happy that my host and translator Boubacar was able to arrange a trip out to the Koure giraffe preserve to visit West Africa’s last wild giraffe herd.

To get there, you drive about 60 km (24 miles) east of Niamey down a very well-paved two-lane highway, passing several villages but also many stretches of open land. There was one security-checkpoint-slash-toll-booth but the toll was less than $1 and they waved us through quickly enough. When we reached the preserve, we stopped at the main headquarters to pay our 10,000 CFA entry fee (about $20) which consisted of tickets for each of us, permission to take photographs, permission to drive the car through the park, and a stipend for the park guide. They have about a dozen guides who are sort of combination park rangers and tour leaders. Their main job is keeping tabs on the roughly 300 giraffes in the preserve so they know where to take the tourists.

giraffes_dark_lightFrom there, it was all dirt roads or total cross-country travels. I felt a little sorry for our driver but I think he enjoys the adventure of back-country driving most of the time. We went past a few villages and Boubacar explained that part of the entry fees go to the village treasuries which means the locals are very motivated to protect the giraffes and report any problems such as people illegally cutting trees. He asked if there was any problem with the giraffes eating the villagers’ crops and our guide said that during the rainy season the giraffes naturally migrate to a more gravelly area further from the villages where there are plenty of tasty trees for them to nibble so that has never been an issue.

After we drove for awhile, our guide got out and rode in the back of the truck so he could scan the horizon for giraffes. Once he spotted a herd, he used a big stick to reach across the top of the truck and gesture to the driver which way to turn. (It sounds simple but I thought it was a pretty ingenious method of communicating without trying to shout over the engine.) As we got close, he would direct the driver to zigzag towards the giraffes so we wouldn’t startle them too much.

giraffe_herd_webOur first group was about four female giraffes and three juveniles around 5 months old. They were fairly calm as we approached and let us get a lot closer than I expected. Our guide said for the most part the males keep to themselves except during mating season. When a female giraffe goes into heat, her urine takes on a distinct smell that summons male giraffes from miles around. They battle for dominance and the winner gets to mate. He said that female giraffes can live as long as 60 years but that the males generally only live about 35 years. I think I may have misunderstood his explanation why but what I thought he said was that the males get so distracted by the possibility of mating that they don’t eat during mating season and thus weaken themselves.

acacia_webGiraffes eat something like 80 different kinds of trees, most of which have thorns. Boubacar (who is a forester by training) identified about four trees that the giraffes were nibbling on while we watched, including acacia (shown here). I didn’t get any good photos of giraffe tongues but they are quite impressive and allow the giraffes to pull leaves easily off branches. However, our guide says they are a bit picky and they prefer young leaves that don’t have an accumulation of dust so they sometimes have to search pretty hard during the dry season.

mother_baby_webOur second encounter was with a mother and her calf, who the guide thought was less than 10 days old. Baby giraffes are not exactly small but they are very cute! They were a little more skittish than the first group so we took a few pictures and then moved on. I had asked if it might be possible to see some male giraffes and our guide said it was hard to find them but we plunged gamely onward into the bush. It felt like we had driven forever and I was starting to feel guilty for making the suggestion when our guide got in the back of the truck again and started leading us cross-country. The truck got stuck in the sand once and we pushed it out and kept going. I was really feeling ready to call it a day when we suddenly came into view of a huge herd of giraffes, 17 in all, including three gigantic males.


Male giraffes are about 3 feet taller than females, have bigger horns, and have a big bump in the middle of their foreheads. They are REALLY TALL. This herd was extremely mellow and let us get quite close to them, watching us curiously with big deer-like eyes. There were even several giraffes sitting under a tree, which the guide says is unusual to see. (It really makes me want to have two sitting giraffe statues in front of my house instead of the typical lions.)

He also explained to me that there are two races of giraffes in the park, a dark one and a light one. It took me awhile to see the difference but there were a couple of young giraffes that had pretty distinctively different coloring. We wandered around taking pictures and I was really shocked by how close they were and how big. Their faces remind me a lot of white-tailed deer but they are so much bigger! They were also fairly slow to bolt although when they did run it was impressive to watch and I have no doubt they could cover a lot of ground in a hurry if they wanted.

giraffes_sitting_webAfter a long period of gawking, we headed back to the front gate to drop off our guide. I tried to ask Boubacar how much I should give as a tip but he didn’t want to impose by quoting me a number so I spent ten minutes frantically trying to calculate in my head what might be reasonable and decided to shoot higher than lower. I grossly overtipped but, hey, it was a spectacular experience and I certainly won’t regret a few dollars in years to come. I just hope the giraffes continue to thrive as the country continues to develop.

curious_giraffe_webNiger is going to see some major changes in the next few decades as the population matures. Right now 50% of the population is under the age of 15 and there is a lot to be done to find ways for them all to thrive as adults. I think it can be done and I hope it can be done in a more environmentally sensitive way than we’ve done in the United States. I’d love to find that level of appropriate technology for both countries that provides comfort and safety without being wasteful or destructive.

And if that’s too much to ask for, I hope that the last wild herd of giraffes in Western Africa will continue to survive.

For more photos, check out our flickr account.

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