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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SIREN call for energy conservation

SIREN Energy Showdown posterThe Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) is a local group dedicated to increasing the amount of renewable energy used in the area. This is an especially important goal around here, since almost all of our power is currently produced by coal.

Maggie and I have gone to one or two meetings and found them very interesting. Their focus appears to be primarily solar energy, with several group members getting together to buy solar panels in bulk. Unfortunately, even then solar panels are expensive since Indiana doesn’t have any solar incentives. As near as we’ve been able to figure, our break-even period would be over 30 years, which makes it hard to justify.

Recently, however, SIREN has begun advertising the SIREN Energy Showdown. The goal of the contest is to get people to reduce the amount of electricity they use in 2010 as compared to 2009. Although you have to meet certain requirements to win prizes (owning a house in Monroe county, etc), anyone can sign up to play for fun. If you do qualify, you can sign up to win some cool prizes, including a 1kW solar system as the grand prize.

We’ve already signed up and are looking forward to tracking our electricity more carefully. I’ve started checking our daily usage instead of just our monthly usage and I’m using my Kill-o-Watt to figure out what our big energy hogs are. I don’t expect that we’ll win anything (we’ve already done most of the easy stuff), but I think we could still reduce our usage by 10%. Reducing our electrical usage by 10% could save us more than $60 a year. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it would also reduce our CO2 production by over half a ton!

Even if you can’t compete, I encourage you to sign up and see how much you can reduce your usage. Let me know if you do sign up and especially if you have any good energy-saving tips!

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Creating an electrical budget

Electricity meterI apologize for the lack of a post last night. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep. It’s been a crazy couple of days, with work stress, the sleeping schedule that won’t regulate, and–oh yeah–we got a house and are slowly tearing it down.

At least, that’s what it feels like. Maggie and I have spent several evenings over there working until it got dark (we have the electricity off). We’ve peeled off most of the wallpaper, some of the trim, and two sections of wood panelling. Underneath is plaster, so we’re going to have to figure out what you can do with that. Paint it? Wallpaper over it?

On Wednesday, we took a break from tearing things apart to do some electrical baselining (that’s a word, right?). I’ve complained before about how difficult it is to figure out where our electricity is going. Starting from scratch gives us a unique chance to do just that.

I think this is a great opportunity to make great strides with our electrical use. Several years back, when I first took control of my finances, my first move was to track exactly where my money was going. That information helped me decide where to focus my efforts for the biggest gains. In my case, I wasn’t able to do much about my rent, but I was able to cancel cable and cut my car insurance by two thirds without feeling like I was sacrificing much.

I’m hoping that creating a baseline for our electrical use will help out in much the same way. To get started, we went around the house and unplugged everything (including the refrigerator and built-in microwave). The meter was still turning, so we started flipping breakers off until we found what we’d missed in the first go-through (an exterior safety light and a sub-panel that goes to the electric water heater).

Now that we’re sure we have no shorts in the system, we can start plugging things back in and see what our base load is. Since most of our appliances are powered by natural gas, I expect it’ll be relatively low. Our biggest power draws will be the refrigerator (according to GE’s information on the model, it’ll use about 700 kWh a year) and the water heater (I have no idea yet).

From there, we can add stuff to the system and see how it affects power consumption. For example, we can turn on all the lights and see how much more electricity that uses than having no lights on. Or, we can run the microwave and see how much electricity it takes to make soup.

Once we’ve got a good month’s worth of data, we can figure out which changes will give us the most bang for the least work.

But first, we’ll have to finish redoing the front room so that we can actually move in!

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Motivating Myself with Scarcity and Bribery

water pumpOur landlord finally replaced our water heater a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the installer used a lot of PVC glue, which is one of the nastiest smelling substances in the world. Besides stinking up the air, it also leached into our water and we decided not to drink any until the taste disappeared.

For about a week we filled jugs of water at other houses and brought it home. Having a limited supply made me much more conscious of how much water I use. Knowing that the tap flows at 2 gallons per minute is somehow not as meaningful as seeing the water level drop in a 1-gallon jug. It was also sobering to know I had to haul more water to the house instead of just turning on the tap.

While I don’t want to suggest we go back to the times of carrying water from the local well, I wonder if there’s a way to have that resource-consciousness without having a limited supply. One idea would be to install a meter to actually measure our real-time water usage. How much water does it really take to run the dishwasher? I can look it up in a chart but it would be way more convincing to see our storage tank draining or even see a dial spinning.

What if the meter also told how much it costs to use that water? I’m sure it wouldn’t be as dramatic as electricity or gasoline but I might be a little more conscientious about dishwashing. On the other hand, gasoline prices keep rising but I’m not sure it’s changing people’s behaviors all that much. Will maintains that it changes people’s behaviors in the long-term; people look for jobs with a shorter commute, look for cars with better gas mileage, and think twice about taking long driving vacations. However, most people have not changed their day-to-day activities and are still willing to drive to the grocery store four times a week because it’s convenient and it doesn’t cost *that* much money. Hopefully those larger habit changes will come as part of a societal shift, when we all start counting car trips as special occasions like plane flights as opposed to counting them as just part of our every day routine.

I know I don’t conserve diesel as well as I could. It is something I can monitor closely and associate with a direct price ($0.09/mile just for fuel) but I still haven’t made huge changes. So what is the key? For me, I think it comes back to the idea of scarcity. My new idea is to fill up my tank at the beginning of the month and see if I can make it last.  I’m also going to throw in a dose of bribery.  Each month I will set aside $40 (about a tank’s worth of fuel) in an “emergency” fuel fund. If I run out of fuel, I can use that money to refill my tank, but if I I can make that first tank last, I get to spend the $40 on a massage or a fancy dinner or some other special treat.

I still love the idea of being able to measure my use of water – and electricity – in real-time. I think it would be fascinating to do some experiments (is it better to turn the thermostat down lower at night or do I end up using more energy reheating the house in the morning?) and also get a better idea of what behavior changes would really make the most difference. And I might make some huge changes like the folks in North Carolina who dramatically cut their water usage in times of drought last summer. But I still think scarcity is the strongest motivator I know of, followed closely by bribery.

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Lazy Friday links: convertible furniture, an expensive drought, and community gardens

I haven’t been reading my blogs regularly this week, so now that I’m back home, there was a bunch of interest stuff waiting for me.

From Treehugger (a new read for me) comes mention of convertible furniture. Dwell, a British company, sells a coffee table that becomes a dinner table and a coffee table that becomes a laptop table. As Maggie and I have been looking at houses, I’ve been thinking about how much space I really need. It seems like a lot of the space we’ve got is only used part of the time. I don’t really want to do anything but sleep in the bedroom, but I hardly ever use the dining room and the living room at the same time. If there were some way to combine rooms, I could probably be comfortable with a place that’s 10% smaller. I don’t know if this table is a good way to do it, but it’s a nice possibility.

I try to keep track of my hometown news and ran across some in an unexpected place today. North Carolina has had a terrible drought for the past year, so everyone has been conserving water. My parents got a rain barrel and now use the old bucket in the shower trick. According to Freakonomics, because NC residents have cut their water usage by a third, the water utility company in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is raising prices! I know that most of the cost of water production is constant, but it’s still a weird disincentive for conservation. It makes the free rider problem even worse. Why bother saving water if it not only doesn’t help you personally, it hurts you.

It’s almost officially spring and the weather is definitely spring-like, which means it’s time to really think about gardens. Maggie has already started planning and digging with some friends. Planet Green has a short blurb about community gardening connected to a Natural Home article that I can’t find (I left Planet Green a post about it, so maybe they’ll fix it before you read this). Community gardening is a good way to get some gardening in even when you’re in an urban area. I was able to set aside a 1’x1′ plot at my last place, but don’t want to dig things up at our current place. Maggie still needs her gardening fix, so she’s helping her friends with their gardens.

There are also some actual community gardens in Bloomington, where you can sign up to use a small part of a larger plot on unused land. I love the concept because it encourages community and give novice gardeners like myself a good place to get advice. There isn’t one within walking distance but there might be if we move downtown. That’s good, because most of the houses we’ve been looking at are too shady for good gardens.

I’ll end with a mention of blog style. I really like the way that JD at Get Rich Slowly emphasizes a couple of key phrases within his articles. I’m going to try and do the same (when I remember). If I’m lucky, that might help me focus on no more than a couple of key points too!

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Can compound interest save the evironment?

A stock graph bursting out from green paperThe site was down for a while this evening, so Maggie didn’t have a chance to post anything before she went to bed. In lieu of a real post, I’ll leave you with something I’ve been thinking about today. A lot of people feel like it isn’t worth changing their lifestyle because they’re just an individual, so they can’t make a real difference. Think about where we’d be if an individual could make an immediate and obvious difference, though. That world would be in terrible trouble if it was at a point where one person’s additional greenhouse gases or electrical use would be enough to plunge the world into chaos.

Wouldn’t you rather be where we are now, where you don’t have to make a huge difference to do some good?

It reminds me of compound interest. When you hear about Adam who invests $12k and lets it sit for 30 years versus Bob who invests $100 a month for 30 years, the obvious winner seems to be Bob. After all, Bob put three times as much money in as Adam, so he made a much bigger difference, right? Sure, if you’re talking effort. But if you’re talking results, Adam is the real mover and shaker here. His initial $12k is worth over $300k, while Bob’s take is half that even though he put in more money!

If you wait until change is forced on you, you’ll have no choice but to make a huge difference (or die off). But, if you start making little changes now, you’ll make it so that you won’t have to be a super-sacrificing Bob.

Call it the compound interest theory of sustainability.

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Climbing the mountain: sustainability one step at a time

Living Like EdNow that my big work push is over, I have a little more free time to catch up on my reading. I’ve started with a book Maggie got at the library last week, Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life. It’s by Ed Begley, Jr (yes, the Ed Begley, Jr. of Mighty Wind and Best in Show) and basically goes through all of the green things he’s learned to do in thirty years (!) of becoming more sustainable.

I’m not done yet, but overall the book is pretty good. It covers very simple things (recycle) as well as more labor or capital intensive things (buy a wind turbine), interspersed with comments by Begley’s wide with an “everyday joe” perspective. However, an analogy Begley makes at the beginning has really stuck with me because it resonates with some things I’ve been thinking recently.

Living sustainably,Begley writes, isn’t a sudden change. Instead, it’s like climbing Everest. You go up a little, then stop and get acclimatized before you head up some more. When you change your lifestyle, make some achievable changes then live with them for a while. You’ll usually find that it’s not a big deal. Once you’re there, you can make some other achievable changes. Eventually, you’ll be much higher on Everest that you ever could have imagined.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid pushing yourself, just that you shouldn’t look at the distance to go and give up. Even if you just change a little, it’s still making a difference. I’ve found that it’s easiest to combine different types of changes. Do something easy (putting in CFLs), habit-changing (cook more lunches), handy (making a worm box), and something long-term (save towards small solar panels). That way, you can really feel like you’re achieving something while you’re working towards the harder goals. It’s a lot like the concept of a debt snowball and I think it can work really well.

Even though I haven’t finished the book, the parts I’ve read are really good. Begley has a whimsical tone that compliments the more serious subject matter. Maggie also liked it, although I think she found most of the advice old hat.

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Five tips for reducing packaging

Time to Buy Girl Scout Cookies!Crinkle.  Crinkle.  Rustle.

“Maggie, are you eating cookies?”

Curses!  Foiled again, by the excessive plastic packaging that is separating me from my beloved Girl Scout cookies!  I started in Girl Scouts when I was six and was an active participant all the way through college and even led a troop for a couple of years so I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m also admittedly addicted to the cookies (especially Tagalongs and Samoas).  Alas, I am not a fan of the packaging.  Usually I would choose not to buy a product with this kind of unrecyclable, unnecessary packaging but we all have our weaknesses.  I did visit the Little Brownie Bakers website to file a request that they make their packaging more recyclable.  It didn’t feel like a very powerful step but if enough people comment on the packaging, they’re bound to change it.

For items other than Girl Scout cookies, here are some tips for reducing packaging

1. Buy in bulk using your own containers.  There are a couple of smaller grocery stores in Bloomington that offer a variety of foods in bulk bins.  There are lots of grains (rice, oats, flour) and dried foods (fruits, nuts, spices) but also items such as peanut butter, dish soap, and laundry detergent.  Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re filling up plastic bags and throwing them away, so I’m getting better about packing up my canning jars and tupperware containers to refill them.  (It also tends to be cheaper).

2. If the packaging is ridiculous, don’t buy it.  I have been volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, one of our local food pantries, and they get a really interesting variety of surplus food.  Last week a big shipment came in of South Beach Diet Chicken Salad Lunches.  Each little box contained a plastic spoon, a plastic bag of croutons, a plastic dish of chicken bits, a plastic packet of salad dressing, and a tiny plastic container of jello.  It was ridiculous.  This is the kind of item I find easy to avoid.

3. Contact the manufacturer about unnecessary packaging. I honestly believe this is the way to get manufacturers to change their ways.  Consumer demand, folks!  It’s supposed to play an important role in our market-driven economy!  Make your voice heard!

4. Bring your own reusable grocery bags.  I have an embarassingly large collection of tote bags, mesh bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, and other cloth containers for holding things but darn it, they’re incredibly useful!  I do occasionally get the odd look from grocery baggers but I have learned to smile sweetly and thank them for helping me support the environment.  I also try to take my own plastic bags to the produce department to bag things like lettuce that are often soaking wet.  (I’ve also found that the bags worth washing out and reusing hold up a LOT better than the ones they tend to give you.)

5.  Buy the big box.  Will and I recently joined Sam’s Club so we can stock up on cheap food in large quantities.  It goes against the grain a bit for me since I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses and quality food.  However, I believe it can be a good choice for us both economically and environmentally so we’re giving it a shot.  (We would have preferred Costco but there is not one in Bloomington.)  The two main challenges are finding products that really do have less packaging (as opposed to the big box of cereal that is in fact many smaller boxes of single servings all packaged together) and finding products that meet my criteria for nutrition and sustainability.  (There’s also the fact that buying the giant bag of Chex Mix does not in fact save money or packaging volume if you go home and eat the entire thing in one serving just like you would with a small bag.)

And a bonus tip….

6. Grow your own, for the ultimate reduction in packaging. I’m getting ready to start some seedlings for a little herb garden on our deck and maybe a couple of tomato plants.  I’ll keep you posted.

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The Ecology of Money

Money fishingIn the past year, I’ve become much more aware of how I spend. I started a budget, I’m saving more, and I read a lot of great financial advice at places like Get Rich Slowly. Along the way, I’ve noticed that a lot of the messages hammered home by the environmental movement are the same as those used by the frugal.

Recently, I’ve used the bumper-sticker version of living green (reducing, reusing, recycling) to save some green as well (sorry, no more puns, I promise). Instead of throwing away old T-shirts, Maggie used them to start a rag rug. Others have been cut up and used to clean spills. Not only are we producing less trash, we’re saving money at the same time. This got me wondering about other ecological messages. How do they apply to saving money instead of saving the Earth?

  1. Minimize consumption – think of ways that you can stop spending money. This might be the hardest to do, but it pays the biggest dividends. The best way to save is not to spend. As a bonus, it’s usually also earth-friendler to consume less!
  2. Look for alternatives – don’t get trapped in your current lifestyle. There are often ways to combine alternatives to come up with something that works well for you. For example, dryer balls increase the efficiency of our dryer but a drying rack lets us reduce usage of the dryer entirely.
  3. Look at the big picture – you can save a lot when you take a step back. Large up-front purchases can reduce your long-term costs considerably. Compact fluorescent lights are a perfect example, but things like a crock-pot can save you just as much in the long haul!
  4. Study earlier generations – there are still a lot of people out there who lived through the Depression. Most of them have great stories about how they made do with less. Even if you decide that toilet paper is something you don’t want to do without, these people can often give you a valuable sense of perspective as well as useful tips for reducing costs.

So the next time you’re in a conserving mood, try saving water, heat, electricity… and money.

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