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Time for change

I got several questions about Energy Plans and Start Here this week off-line (email). Please ask questions in the comment section so others can contemplate and respond too. Nevertheless, the questions fell into two categories: 1) The numbers seem staggering, are they true? 2) How do we identify the best projects?

Answer #1: The “numbers” themselves are staggering. A BTU is the energy it takes to raise a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. This is a pretty small unit; for example, a 10 gallon shower (this is a water conservative shower) uses about 83.3 pounds of water. Assuming an incoming temperature of 50 degrees and a shower temperature of 110 degrees that is a 60 degree difference. So it takes about 5,000 BTUs just for your quick morning shower! (83.4 x 60 = 5,004) Multiply this times 4 people times 365 days in the year and you get 7,305,840 BTUs, just for showering! This is why we usually talk in millions of BTUs (mmBTU). So yes the numbers seem staggering, if just by the number of digits.

But the numbers are also staggering by the amount of energy they represent. The average American uses 335 mmBTUs a year (latest worldwide numbers provided by US EIA are for 2006) – the average family of four uses over 1.3 billion BTUs a year. This is the total U.S. energy consumed divided by our population; it includes what we, as individuals, have control over (home, transportation, food & purchases), as well as a lot we do not directly control (government, military, industry, medical, etc.).

These numbers serve little purpose beyond embarrassing us when compared to the averages for other developed nations like Germany (178), United Kingdom (162) or Japan (178) that use about half what we do per person. And they are a cause for concern when compared to our neighbor to the south, Mexico (69), or when compared to China (56) and India (16) with over one-third the World’s population between them – after all, many want to live like Americans! I’ve heard that if everyone in the world used as much energy as we do, it would require four Earths! It is because of numbers like the above that I believe the four Earths might be one or two short.

So, if you find the numbers staggering I think that is an “appropriate” feeling and response. For us as individuals and a country to be energy independent (not to mention live sustainably) we need to use a lot less energy. Becoming aware of the numbers, both relatively and absolutely, is a good place to start.

Answer #2: There are a lot of approaches to how you might want to pick your first project and then your next project and your next project... I fall into the group that is numbers oriented. I like to analyze, perhaps too much. Others like to work on what interests them at the time. Still others work on what they are reading about or see in the news. And I’m sure there are many other approaches. There is really no right way to pick what should be worked on next, but I will share my approach. Others can share their approach and reasoning too.

I look for an opportunity – a deficiency I can significantly improve. Here are the usual suspects. Look them over for ideas that work for you and your situation. Remember, you don't need to start with the biggest project, just one that moves you in the right direction, then work on the next one. Also keep in mind that you can do projects in different areas at the same time, if you are so inclined! Good luck and Godspeed...

Home Heating: Energy to heat is usually one of the biggest opportunities, so I used the Home Heating Index (HHI) to look at where my house was on a useful scale. HHI is a high-level measure of how well a home is insulated, how air tight, how efficiently the heating system delivers BTUs, and how energy conscious is the household (same house, different family; different results). Go to HHI Calculator  to see where your house stands. Our house was in good shape, so I looked for something else to work on first.

However, if your HHI is 10 or more, definitely focus on home heating because this is pretty straight forward work and you can expect economical results (energy savings will pay for all or most of your improvements!). Start with a Home Energy Audit by a NYSERDA participating contractor. Find one here (just click on your county). When you make your appointment, confirm that a blower door test will be done and that you will receive a copy of the Home Performance Report. This report will show your “Shell Leakage” in CFM50 and the “Industry Standard.” I will explain these numbers in another post, but for now just be sure you will get them – they are very important and well worth the effort of getting a home energy audit. If the auditor is not going to provide this minimal information, look for another!!

If your HHI is between 5 and 10, then an audit is still a good idea, but you may have bigger opportunities, so look further before deciding what your initial focus will be.

Transportation: This is a different type of analysis. You have to get in touch with your inner-self and decide what your priorities really are and then you make choices to support that belief. Sometimes those choices are necessarily spread over years, as you adjust from where you are to where you want to be. Here are some questions relative to transportation.

Where do you want to live? This is fundamental. Day in and day out transportation to work is often the largest use of a family’s car(s). Unless you are assured long term employment at the same location, where you work should only be a factor – not the whole basis for making this fundamental decision. Living in a town or a city can dramatically cut your mileage (and thus your fuel use) and should be considered; on the other hand living in “suburbia” with its large lawns gardens could cut food costs and energy. Down the road, light rail may be a factor, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Where do you want to work? Some people have the opportunity to make a change here. Some can work from home. Some can take a similar job closer to home. This is a factor in energy use. Some can work within biking range – this can be big!

What type of car do you want/need? IMHO there is no reason to buy a car that does not get at least 30 MPG. If you need a truck for business or other reasons, this may not be the case. SUVs are not a necessity! There are many choices that can deliver 35+ MPG and carry four comfortably. And, electric cars are coming. More on this at another time.

The previous three areas are structural decisions that have a permanent impact on fuel use. The next two are a matter of personal choice and discipline.

Where do you need to drive? Can you walk across the street to get your snack or newspaper? Do you need to get that thingamajig now or can it wait until you will be driving right by there next week? Can you combine other trips with a little coordination and “delayed gratification”? Can you car-pool to work or for weekly shopping? Could dinner and a movie be just as good at home? There are a thousand ways to cut your transportation energy, but you need to develop a new sensitivity and perspective to the use of fuel.

How do you drive? A good deal of efficiency can be gained just by slowing down! When possible, coast to a stop (saves your brakes too). Zero to 60 should be measured with a sun dial, not a digital stop watch (saves on batteries too). Lighten your car – don’t carry around stuff you don’t need. Keep you tires inflated. If you do nothing else, start working on getting more miles out of your gallons. 

I focused on transportation first because there was an obvious opportunity to save money, but also because I had become sensitized to wasting oil in getting from A to B! I wasn’t a kid any longer and needed to mature my driving habits and my car. In 2006, I traded my 1990 BMW 535 that sucked premium gas like it was a milk shake (20 MPG) for a 2002 Jetta TDI that sipped diesel (50+ MPG). I also started driving slower.

Certainly you too can start with where and how you drive and realize significant fuel savings starting today. Certainly the other questions are worth thinking about and discussing! Another action to take is to get a better handle on your miles driven per week, month and year. Also, knowing how much fuel you use for transportation is important; maybe you are organized enough to keep track of your gallons purchased – someday I may be.

Food: It is hard to imagine how 500 gallons of fuel (gasoline equivalents) are used in producing the typical American diet per person. Certainly there are a lot of steps that use fuel in food production: plow, plant, fertilize, water, harvest, truck, process, transport, package, distribute, store, sell, bring home, and finally dispose of waste & packaging. 500 gallons is what Dr. David Pimentel, Cornell University professor emeritus, estimates, but the exact number is not too important. What is important is that the typical diet involves a lot of fuel and that Food is Really, Really Important!

Whatever the exact number of BTUs in a steak or a head of lettuce, one of the problems in reducing our energy used in food is the difficulty in making “energy sensitive” buying decisions. It took years to get nutrition content on food labels; it will take many more years to get energy content on labels.

In the meantime, David Gershon, author of The Low Carbon Diet (an excellent book on reducing energy and greenhouse gases) identifies beef as the most energy intensive, as well as producing a lot of CO2 equivalent (CO2 from energy plus beef-produced methane).

Dr. Pimentel estimates the following total gas equivalents for these three types of diets:

            Conventional = 500

            Vegetarian     = 330

            Vegan            = 250

I’d love a little more granularity, but clearly the amount of meat is a big factor. Perhaps it would be fair to say if you went from eating meat 7 times a week to 3.5 times that your energy in food would go from 500 to 415 gallons of gasoline equivalents?

Another factor is the degree to which the food is local and unprocessed. This relationship is less quantifiable, but clearly there is less energy in transportation and processing. Also how our purchased meat is raised – free range or in a pen with all the corn and grain being produced miles away – has an impact on energy and animal quality of life.

Backyard raised fruits and vegetables uses even less energy and provide other benefits – healthy exercise, unmatched freshness, and knowing exactly what fertilizers and pesticides were (and were not) used.

I’m sure we will get more information about the energy content in food, if from no other source than the price tag – higher energy costs translate pretty directly into higher food costs. See Nancy White’s “Top Ten” for other ideas and ways to save energy in food!

While this is clearly the biggest future opportunity to reduce the energy consumed by my family, it is also the hardest for us. We need to change our shopping and eating habits. I’m working on this and I hope you can too.

Purchases: While we can’t measure and manufacturers are not yet providing embedded energy content for their products, we still need to consider this aspect when we go about making our plans. At a minimum, we should do all we can to assure the materials are recycled. Beyond the minimum, if a product still has useful life but little or no resale value, we should make the effort find it a new home; FreeCycle is a growing trend.

There are lots of products that just need some minor repairs to extend their lives. Some people have the time and the skill to do this work. I expect embedded energy will force a reversal of our “throw-away” attitude. Perhaps considering the embedded energy and being unable to find a new home for a product may prompt you to to use it another year; this is good use of embedded energy!

I expect we will see more information on embedded energy in the future. Certainly as energy prices escalate, there is sure to be one indicator of embedded energy – again it will be the price tag. Similar products made with less energy (manufacturing and distribution) should enjoy a price advantage!

Summary: Calculate your energy used by major category (home, transportation & food); consider your situation; do a little evaluation and soul searching; develop your energy plan with short- and long-term goals; pick a project (really any project!). Then the most important step is to get started! If you have any questions, Ask Our Team!


Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community (www.OEIC.us). Previously he performed home energy audits for five years in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and new home ratings in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at DanG@OEIC.us

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