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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Powering Down

A couple months ago, Maggie talked me into giving a presentation at the Simply Living Fair about our 3-kWh Challenge (which has more details, if the presentation is too high-level for you). The presentation went very well and has some more information (and hard numbers) about our electrical use since January. In my challenge post, I clocked us in at just under 80 kWh, but the official number from Duke Energy was just 71 kWh! The difference is just because we started and stopped measuring at different times, but it still sounds good.

My presentation slides are embedded below, but I’ll add some explanation underneath to replace some of the bits where I talked.

On the graph of our electrical usage, I included one line for each year plus a bar graph series at the bottom that represents our kWh usage per day based on my readings. There’s a LOT of variation, mostly due to hot water heating, the furnace, or A/C. When we stopped using all of those things in June, everything calmed down a lot.

In the end, we used 28% of the electricity we used last year, which is a tiny 14% of the electricity used by the average house our size!

We ended up using 115 kWh in September and are on track to stay under 120 kWh in October, so we’ve been able to maintain usage at 50% of last year’s numbers.

Just looking at electricity, we’ve saved about $175 so far this year and reduced our CO2 emissions by almost 2.5 tons (coal is not a very clean source of electricity)!

We’re incredibly happy with what we’ve done so far and plan to continue trimming as we head into the heating season! We knocked out some insulation projects today that will hopefully help and we’ll certainly keep you updated about the solar furnace!

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Laptop Power

Kill-A-WattIt’s been a crazy day. I was up at four this morning to take Maggie and our friend Lindsey to the airport for their separate flights to the same place (Portland). We had some very interesting conversations, including some talk about investing sustainably that I hope to talk about when I’m more conscious.

Instead, let’s talk about something that I can explain even while brain-dead: the Kill-A-Watt (it’s pretty cheap right now on Amazon). Maggie’s parents gave one to me for Christmas and I’ve played with it several times since.

It resets when you unplug it, so it can sometimes be inconvenient to read when, say, you have it plugged in behind the refrigerator. Nevertheless, it’s fun and enlightening to see how much electricity things around the house actually use. I generally think about everything in terms of how long I could power a CFL (or how many CFLs I could power) for the same amount.

My first sample was my laptop. The power supply can draw 120 Watts (about ten CFLs), so I always assumed that was about how much it drew. It turns out that I was way off. Even though it has a big screen and uses WiFi constantly, my laptop only draws about 35 Watts (three CFLs) while in use or about twice that when charging and being used. While in “sleep” mode, it uses somewhere between 0 and 1 Watts, which is amazing.

My netbook uses even less electricity, which goes some way towards explaining the battery life. Running the netbook draws 15 Watts, which is about the same as a CFL. So far, though, Maggie has vetoed my plan to replace all of our light fixtures with netbooks. From reading the specs, the CPU uses 2.5-3 Watts, so most of that power is going to the backlight (which you can turn off while leaving the screen on, although it’s totally unreadable). It just goes to show how efficient LEDs are.

We’re currently using the Kill-A-Watt to determine whether we should keep our current fridge or swap it for the old one that Maggie’s parents have. It’s plugged in and running at their place right now, but we’ve already gotten the results on our current model. It uses about 950 Watts (about 73 CFLs) while not running the cooling pump and even more when actively cooling. It used 28kW over a typical period of 382 hours (a little over two weeks). That averages out to about 1.75 kWh per day. That certainly makes it hard to hit my 3 kWh a day target but it’s slightly better than my 2 kWh per day estimate.

Unfortunately, we can’t use the Kill-A-Watt to measure some of our biggest energy users (the dryer and the water heater) because it won’t work on 220-volt outlets. I’m hopeful that eventually we’ll have measured all of the other important stuff so that we can just subtract them out and get better estimates for them as well.

Once we’re done with the refrigerator, my plan is to check my TV and stereo to see how much phantom power they actually draw. We have them on power strips because we’ve heard a lot about the waste of phantom power, but I don’t know how much of a concern it actually is.

What about you? Is there anything you’re interested in hearing about now that I have the means to measure energy consumption?

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Why I don’t buy green power

Although the best way to live sustainably is to reduce consumption, that often requires sacrifices I’m not willing to make. A good second option is to make sure that the things I consume are as sustainable as possible. In the case of electricity, Duke Energy has a program called GoGreen that would allow us to purchase 100-kWh blocks of green power. The price isn’t totally unreasonable. It’s $2.50 per block, with a required purchase of $5. Since we always use more than 200-kWh a month, we could go totally green for about 25% more than we’re paying now. That’s not insignificant, but we could probably swing it.

Green plugSo why don’t I take the green option and take advantage of GoGreen? Because it’s not really that sustainable. The 100-kWh blocks that you buy don’t necessarily change the makeup of the electricity you receive. If it was 100% coal before, it’ll probably be 100% coal after. Instead, what you’re getting are renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Whenever a green energy source (wind, solar, some hydro, etc.) produces 1MWh of electricity, it is assigned one REC. These RECs are then sold on the open market, subsidizing part of the additional cost of green energy production (since the green source is also paid for the electricity generated).

To me, green energy means holds a lot more promise than just a reduction in CO2. Unlike other sources, things like wind and solar scale down (or, as I prefer it, scale personal) well, which makes it feasible to create electricity locally. Just as with food, there’s a meaningful cost to shipping energy. Paying people in other states to feed their sustainable sources into the grid is encouraging the wrong behavior.

I could pay Duke Energy $25 a month and make a small, indirect impact. Or, I can save that money and make a more direct impact by reducing my consumption of electricity off the grid. In the near future, I can get some small solar panels to power things like my digital camera and cell phone. Once I’ve saved some more, I can invest in more solar or perhaps in a small wind turbine.

This way, not only am I converting my non-sustainable energy requirements to sustainable sources, I’m directly funding the companies who are creating green energy sources. I’ll also be creating my own localized power, which means I’ll be less affected by blackouts and brownouts. Maybe sometime in the future, I won’t need those power lines at all.

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