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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Confession of a convenience addict

I admit it, I’m a fan of convenience. I’m the guy that Slow Food hates, the one who eats PB&J well into his twenties (and counting). I do eat at home a lot but that’s mostly because I’m cheap. If there were a restaurant that were as cheap as eating in, I’d probably eat there every day.

Since there isn’t, I do the next best thing. Many of my lunches are microwave meals. Sometimes, it’s good stuff like soup from good chicken stock or frozen homemade lasagna. Other times, pickings are slim and I return to my collegiate habits. At times like those, I head right right to the noodle bowls. Yeah, ramen is cheaper (and I do make it occasionally, with added veggies and half the “flavor”) but there’s something satisfying about tossing some hot water into a bowl and coming back just minutes later for a delicious noodle dish. Of course, I’m easy when it comes to noodles so ‘delicious’ might be an overstatement.

The only thing keeping this from being the perfect lunch crime, apart from the very real threat of sodium overdose, is the packaging. I can’t very well pretend to Maggie that I’ve been good when there’s a styrofoam cup leering at her from the drying rack.

Cue Annie Chun’s kung pao noodle bowl. Instead of the plastic wrap some of the noodle bowls have, it’s got nice, recycleable cardboard. Even better, the packaging says that the bowl is biodegradeable! After my coworker Ian told me about them, I walked down to Kroger to check them out. Normally, they’re $3.20 which is pretty steep for eating in, but they had a special offer of $1.60, which was pretty good. I took it as a sign and grabbed one.

Annie Chun’s disappointing kung pao noodle bowlIt seemed to good to be true and, to my chagrin, it was. Disappointment, thy name is Annie Chun. Inside the cardboard box and the biodegradeable bowl were four plastic packets of food and spices. I’m also not convinced that the “biodegradeable” bowl would actually biodegrade in a landfill, which makes it effectively plastic. The bowl’s website is more of an ad for Annie Chun’s charity than information about the bowl so I can’t tell.

There’s not much point in replacing the styrofoam cup with a “biodegradeable” bowl if you then add in as much plastic as you saved. I wish the microwave meal people would take a cue from the mac and cheese boxes. With just a cardboard box around noodles and a small plastic “flavor packet,” there’s very little packaging and all of it recycleable.

After mentioning my throught to her, Maggie upped the ante by suggesting that I create my own microwave meals out of bouillon cube “flavor packets,” frozen veggies, and rice noodles. At $0.99 a pound, the noodles are cheap, the frozen veggies almost as much, and bouillon is even less, so the frugal Dr. Jekyll in me definitely approves.

We’ll see how my convience-driven Mr. Hyde feels when I try it out!

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Greased Lightning – Driving on Vegetable Oil

Frozen GreasecarI don’t want to scare people away with my hardcore environmental tales but I do like to tell people about my greasecar.  It’s a 1997 VW Jetta with a turbo diesel engine that has been adapted to burn straight vegetable oil.  The idea is that I can burn waste vegetable oil (from all those French fry joints) instead of petroleum diesel which will achieve three goals: utilizing a waste product, reducing dependence on petroleum products, and reducing the amount of air pollution generated.  (The third one is debatable but at least it SMELLS a lot better.)  Oh, and I generally get my vegetable oil for free as opposed to paying $3.50/gallon for petroleum diesel.

The idea is simple.  The diesel engine was originally designed to burn vegetable oil so today’s diesels can also burn vegetable oil IF it is preheated to reduce the viscosity (make it thinner).  My car has a special tank in the trunk that I fill with filtered vegetable oil.  I start my car with petroleum diesel from the regular gas tank, use the heat from the engine to heat up the vegetable oil, and when it’s hot I push a button to start pumping from the vegetable oil tank instead.  At the end of my ride I switch back to petroleum diesel to purge all the lines.  This is so when my car cools down, the engine doesn’t gum up with vegetable oil.

Just to clarify, a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system is different than a biodiesel system.   Biodiesel is a product made by combining vegetable oil with lye and methanol to create a fuel that is very similar to petroleum biodiesel.  The cool part is that you can put it in the regular tank of any diesel vehicle and don’t need to modify the vehicle to use it.  (There are a couple of exceptions; biodiesel has a nasty habit of eating through certain types of rubber so there are some older cars that would need to have their gaskets switched out.)  The downside of biodiesel is that you have to make it, which generally involves some kind of processing system, and it generates some nasty byproducts.  This is not surprising since lye (drain cleaner) and methanol (antifreeze) are both pretty nasty to begin with.

I decided to go the straight vegetable oil route because I found biodiesel production to be intimidating.  There are definitely people out there who have awesome setups in their garages but they tend to be the tinkering types.  It’s also possible to buy biodiesel but most of that is made from new vegetable oil rather than waste vegetable oil.  I prefer to see new vegetable oil being used as people food instead of running my car. 

My greasecar has been pretty good but there was definitely a steep learning curve and I really feel like I haven’t done as well as I could have.  There are a few ongoing problems I have chosen not to deal with – for example, the gauge for the vegetable oil tank has never worked and my trunk has a permanent coating of grease from spills.  Filtering the waste oil is a HUGE pain and I still haven’t figured out a good system.  I also can only run on grease when the temperature is above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Diesels don’t like cold weather and veggie oil only makes it worse.  In the end, it has been a little too easy to run on petroleum diesel instead of hassling with veggie oil but overall I’m glad I did the conversion. 

I have a lot more to say on the subject so expect future posts about the nitty gritty details of conversion, turf wars for used vegetable oil, my internal debate about whether or not running my car on grease can really be considered environmentally benign, and my frustration with the biofuels movement.

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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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