A few years ago I heard a presentation by two permaculturists while attending the monthly EarthSave Louisville potluck. It was a frosty night and the event room at St. Paul’s church was packed. The topic was a community house that the presenters were building with friends. I will never forget how the conventional home was described: the modern house in the suburbs is a heat and energy sink, sucking energy from the grid and consuming it in the form of AC, heating, lighting, appliances, electronics, etc. A motion was made by the presenter with both hands, narrow at the onset and widening downwards, which conveyed the message of energy disappearing into nothing. In the Volunteer State, that disappearing energy has two primary sources: natural gas and coal.
Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that residential electricity use increased sharply from 1950-2000, while the use of natural gas decreased slightly during the same time period. Increases in appliance efficiency and home insulation have been offset by a number of factors. The average size of homes in the U.S. is 45 percent larger than 30 years ago, while the number of occupants has decreased. The result is an increase in per capita floor area, which is extra space that has to be heated and cooled. The number of appliances and electronics has also risen dramatically, many of which are never turned off.
Per capita residential electricity consumption in Tennessee is 6,868 kwh, which is 2,274 kwh higher than the national average and places us at No. 2 nationally (EIA). How embarrassing! Apart from our damaged pride, this staggering number translates into a higher carbon footprint as well as higher utility bills. Although house size is not something easily fixed, there are a variety of ways to significantly reduce home energy use.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average American household spends $2,000 on energy each year. About 25 percent of this could be reduced via standard energy-saving measures, some of which are listed below. All numerical data is taken from the energysavers.gov website.
1. Insulation: walls, windows, and doors. Check the R value of insulation in your attic and in crawl spaces. Check windows and doors for air leaks. Double-paned windows offer an R value in the 1.5–3.6 range, while single-pane windows are rated at about .85. Storm windows can reduce heat loss by 25–50 percent.
2. Stand-by electronics. Put all stand-by electronics on a single power strip than can be switched off, rather than allowing them to suck energy during off time (TV, DVD player, computer, printer, etc.). Reduce the number of household electronics. In addition to energy savings, eliminating all televisions in the home would provide an incalculable quality of life benefit. A friend of mine turned his old, wood-framed cathode ray tube television into a fish tank, providing hours of nature programming for the entire family.
3. Appliances. Look for the Energy Star rating. Appliances account for about 20 percent of home energy use. The site energy.gov/appliances-electronics has a best in class listing for various categories.
4. Hot water. Install low-flow shower heads and faucets to reduce water use. Use the lowest settings on dish and laundry washers (the bulk of the energy used for these activities is consumed when heating the water). Lower the thermostat on the water heater to 120 degrees (every 10 degree reduction provides 3–5 percent in energy savings). Turn the water heater off for extended periods of inactivity (days).
5. Home temperature. Invest in a programmable thermostat, which allows for different temperatures while away and at night. It is estimated that a 10–15 degree temperature reduction for 8 hours during the winter can save 10 percent on heating bills. In the summer, I find that a degree or two can make a significant impact on the AC cycle frequency.
There are many free guides available concerning home energy audits that go into much greater detail than the items listed above. The first step is to develop a strategy. Some items are fairly straightforward, such as temperature settings. Others may require the skills of a handyman, such as replacing windows. Will you be making changes yourself, or would an external energy audit be helpful?
The Murfreesboro Electric Department offers home energy audits and works with local contractors who can implement recommended changes. An audit costs $150, all of which will be refunded in the form of a check if $150 worth of energy improvements are made within 90 days. You are also eligible for a 50 percent reimbursement of the installation cost, with a limit of $500 on TVA-approved improvements (see the Murfreesboro Electric website for more details).
It is tempting to view reducing energy usage as merely an interesting (and fun!) experiment. Energy prices are kept artificially low by externalizing the environmental and health costs of using coal and natural gas, and many have a level of disposable income that makes the issue convenient to overlook. But consider a scenario in which coal and natural gas are monetized, which is a coming market-based solution to curb the insatiable American hunger for energy. When the true price of our lifestyle is correctly accounted for, it will be the prepared who will best accommodate the change. There is also the moral elephant in the room. Americans generally value freedom, as long as it doesn’t hurt others. The well-documented environmental damage caused by wanton energy wastefulness hurts everyone. And lastly, the egregious American energy footprint is not accompanied by a corresponding level of happiness. As wonderfully investigated in Eric Weiner’s A Geography of Bliss, happiness is largely comparative after basic needs are met. This last idea is worthy of much more attention, but I will leave you with some questions. What are we really getting for our larger homes and a perpetual turnover of gadgets, and is there another path that is more consistent with our values?