Thursday, May 10, 2007

Personal Energy Consumption and How to Cut It

One of the hardest things about living in the outer suburbs for someone with an environmental conscience is figuring out how to cut down on the amount of energy we use.

To use the most obvious example: Almost everything we do requires a car. The supermarket is a mile away, along a narrow road with no sidewalks that is downhill going and uphill coming home – just far enough and dangerous enough and strenuous enough to make it inconvenient to walk with a lot of groceries. Most of our kids' friends live in our town but none live within walking distance, and the hills on the backroads and the traffic on the bigger roads are a disincentive to biking, to say the least.

Here’s the amount of driving my wife and I had to do last weekend, to get the kids to and from their social and recreational events: a 3-mile round trip to karate lessons; a 5-mile round trip to a little league game; a 5-mile round trip to a birthday party; a 20-mile round trip to another birthday party; two 5-mile round trips to pick up each kid after the birthday parties; a 42-mile round trip to a dance recital; a 24-mile round trip to pick up kid at a friend’s house after the dance recital; 14-mile round trip to birthday party. That’s 113 miles just to ferry kids back and forth. We drive a 2004 Honda CRV and a 1996 Subaru Outback, which I’m happy to say has about 105,000 miles on it. So I guess we used about five gallons of gas – not outrageous but when you add in the time we spent sitting in the car, it’s an expensive, gas-consuming activity. And considering that my commute is about the same -- 120 miles a week -- running the kids back and forth used as much gas as getting to and from work.

Our house needs a new roof, thanks to a couple of incompetent contractors. The roof is flat and the house is on a hill in a small clearing, so it gets plenty of sun. We thought it would be a good time to look into photo voltaic cells. I haven’t gotten any further than using the energy-saving calculator that the NYSERDA website links to, but based on that it seems as if a solar energy system for our house would cut the amount of energy we buy from NYSEG by almost half, which isn’t bad. To do that, though, we’d have to lay out almost $9,000 for a PV system, and that’s after several state-subsidized incentives that seem both generous and easy to take advantage of (to get the incentives, you have to use a state-authorized PV installer; most of the incentives actually go directly to the installer, so he is responsible for the paperwork; and all the parts and equipment are guaranteed for five years). Cutting our electricity purchases by almost half seems like a lot to me. But the financial savings aren’t that great – almost $600 a year, at today’s electric rates. So it would take us 15 years to make up our $9,000 investment.

Our friends who run the Fountainhead wine shops in Norwalk and Bedford Hills, and the Fat Cat Pie Company in Norwalk, sent out a mailer last week that has the usual promotions and information about their wines. But it also said this:

Save your cooking oil for Fat Cat Car
We are in the process of converting the engines of two diesel cars to use recycled vegetable oil to facilitate locomotion. The cars will be on the road delivering pizza from Fat Cat Pie Co., wine from Fountainhead and coffee and breakfast from Fat Cat Joe. They will be up and cruising Fairfield County in April so look out for Fat Cat Cars coming to a neighborhood near you soon…

I guess that’s one way to do it.

Out on Block Island, where all the electricity is created by diesel-burning generators, the state of Rhode Island wants to put wave-driven turbines in the ocean. The estimate is that it would cut electric costs for local consumers by 15 to 18 cents per kilowatt hour, which unless I’m completely muddle-headed sounds like a 15 to 18 percent reduction. One of the concerns of course is that cheaper electricity will prompt Block Islanders, who use relatively little electricity (probably in part because air conditioning in summer is rare), to use more, negating whatever gains the waves create.

A couple of weeks ago Andy Revkin wrote a piece for the Times Week in Review about reducing our carbon footprint, and he quoted Charles Komanoff, an energy economist who I remember from my days as a reporter because he used to travel to White Plains for hearings (about Indian Point, I think) by putting his bike on the train and then cycling to the hearing room. Andy quoted him as saying:

"There isn't a single American household above the poverty line that couldn't cut their CO2 at least 25 percent in six months through a straightforward series of fairly simple and terrifically cost-effective measures."

A couple of days later, Komanoff wrote on Gristmill that he had gotten a dozen e-mails from people questioning his assertion and wanting to know how they could achieve what he said they could achieve. Here's what he says -- a list of unglamorous but, considering that he knows what he's talking about, no doubt effective things to do.



Anonymous Dr. Vino said...

It's not much, but I've given up bottled water. It beats giving up wine!


12:18 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

You should look into solar thermal, certainly for domestic hot water and possibly for space heating. It's much cheaper than PV but can be very effective.


5:07 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I like what Bryan says and I also have a flat-top bitumen roof. I am NOT an expert in installing solar water arrays but my understanding is that if you're going to redo the roof, you'll need some "stringers" of oak of very good metal anchored into the roof. Do some research on what width you need for the arrays and how many you want, considering roof load, snow, and all that. No need to be real exact but the idea is that the stringers allow the water to flow downhill and are constructed into the roof while being redone. Nice.

Every drill hole, anchor, and hole in your roof will try to leak. By building the stringers into the design and while the contracter has all his stuff there gives you a guarantee and piece of mind. I'll be doing the same thing when my roof finally gives up in a year or two.

I am a first believer in solar water systems. Not only are they good for hot water, you can run a heat exchanger from them. In fact, if you use a closed saline system you'll need a heat exchanger anyway, like a radiator without the fan. Take your time and do the research and see what you like. Do you want to store letent heat in your basement or garage? Sure, you need electricity to run pumps and motors but solar heat does seem much more cost efficient than PV arrays.

Oh, forgot to mention that closed saline systems do not freeze and that UV radiation even happens in the winter. /sam

8:07 PM  

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