I have wanted to write this diary for a long time. I have been interested and involved in the debate on DKOS concerning energy, climate change, and nuclear power. There have been many great diaries about the difficulty we face transitioning to alternative energy sources. Like it or not, nukes or no-nukes, coal or no coal, the reality is that the world’s current energy sources are dwindling and the worlds energy demands are increasing. Without dramatic changes in these trends, energy costs will skyrocket and become scarce over the next few decades. Additionally, without some major changes, there will be dramatic changes to our planets climate resulting from our burning huge quantities of fossil fuels. These two issues will be catastrophic to humans everywhere.
The great Think Big front page diaries by Mark Summer and Meteor Blades about energy and transportation motivated me to share my ideas on how each of us can take immediate steps to address these problems, put ourselves in a safer economic situation, and lead our lagging governments by example.
This diary is about how wasteful we all are and how our culture promotes this waste: “Plug it in plug it in” comes to mind. Other cultures use a fraction of the energy Americans use. I believe a combination of corporate marketing and plain laziness has resulted in our society being extremely wasteful of our precious energy sources. While the extreme waste in the US makes it very easy to find simple conservation measures, even in countries that use far less energy can also find further conservation methods. Because our governments are failing us in addressing both the coming energy shortages and climate change, we must all make personal and substantial contributions to solving America’s energy crisis. Through simple conservation you will improve your family’s long term financial security and truly achieve the one thing we all strive for “energy independence” creating a better world today and for tomorrow.
While this topic never gets the headlines like nuclear accidents or oil spills, reducing our energy usage has more potential to immediately address our energy and climate problems than anything else. The reality is that especially in the US, we waste a huge amount of energy. The US has about 5% of the world’s population but uses 20% of the world’s energy. This waste is an untapped potential that can provide immediate benefits.
Let’s look at some data to get an idea on how much of this waste we can realistically reduce, without lowering our standard of living. First, let’s look at US energy consumption verses other countries with similar standards of living.
This graph shows annual per capita total energy consumption (Source) for a selection of countries with similar standards of living as the US and Canada. To be fair, each country has different circumstances such as weather and other factors that will influence energy needs. However, this data makes it pretty clear that many other advanced countries seem to be able to get by just fine on close to half the energy per capita than the US and Canada.
Another example to get a feel for how much wasted energy we might be able to conserve is the history of electrical usage in California. Since 1974, California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant, while energy use per person for the United States overall has jumped 50 percent. (Source) Why has this happened in California and not the rest of the US, it is because California has provided incentives for conservation and has shunned the use of cheap dirty power (coal) and as a result electricity in California is a bit more expensive than the rest of the country. The result is that California is more like thrifty Denmark than the rest of the energy-guzzling United States. While the average American burns 12,000 kilowatt-hours a year of electricity, the average Californian burns less than 7,000.
In addition to California’s historical conservation success, the fake energy crisis of 2000-2001 in California provides further proof that there is a huge amount of wasted energy that can be easily conserved.
California conclusively demonstrated last year that energy conservation and efficiency can significantly and rapidly reduce electricity consumption. During one month, June 2001, when supplies of power were tightest and conservation efforts were strongest, statewide peak-hour electricity demand shrank by 14% from June 2000 (after adjusting for year-to-year differences in weather and employment, both of which affect power demand; actual reductions, before adjustments, were 9%). Although the “conservation rate” understandably slipped somewhat after June as power supplies grew more ample, adjusted peak power usage by Californians for the four summer months (June through September) in 2001 averaged 10% less than a year earlier.
From "SECURING POWER THROUGH ENERGY CONSERVATION AND EFFICIENCY IN NEW YORK"
I present these examples not as exact comparisons, but to demonstrate that when we are driven to conserve, we can do it quite easily without any significant negative impact to our lives. The examples in California I believe are quite insightful on our energy use behavior. While government programs to promote conservation in California surely contributed to the long term absence in growth in consumption, I believe the bigger motivator in California is that electricity is a bit more expensive here. Where I live in California, it gets really hot in the summer. If you want to run your air conditioner all day long for your whole house, it gets quite expensive. I have friends with large houses who spend well over $1,000 per month on electricity in the summer. Most of us in California simply can’t afford to do that and have to find alternatives that we can afford. The impressive drop in peak consumption during the fake energy crisis of 2000-2001 in California also shows that not only financial interested are a motivator, but people actually conserved out of respect for others. I remember that time very well. The threats of rolling black-outs shutting down businesses and sending employee’s home without a paycheck had many people talking about what they could do to conserve electricity, and more importantly actually taking action to reduce consumption. This example gives me the most hope that we can quickly implement conservation measures as soon as people feel that it is an emergency.
Implementing significant conservation measures is not constrained by technology, but is constrained by human behavior. None of us like change. All of us have become lazy and accustom to wasting energy. Many of us are greedy and want it all for ourselves. We have a culture where people who go out of their way to conserve are often viewed as weird, and the wasteful are viewed as successful. We have a car culture where the bigger the better, again people driving big hunks of steel and emitting carcinogenic and climate changing fumes are seen as successful and the guy taking the bus or riding his bike is seen as a failure. I actually had someone ask me if my Velcro strap to keep my pants out of the bike chain was a tracking ankle bracelet, thinking that if I was taking the bus and riding my bike it could only be because I got a DUI and could not legally drive.
Our economic system has increasingly promoted waste especially in the throwaway society we have become. These wasteful, self-serving attitudes would not surprise me from someone who thinks climate change is a liberal ploy to implement communism, but unfortunately I am continually disappointed by well-intentioned folks who understand the situation we are in and consider themselves environmentalists. I guess a big part of it is that this is the culture we all participate in, and like it or not, we are all heavily influenced by these behavioral attitudes. I can’t tell you how many “environmentalist” friends refuse to take small individual steps to conserve energy or transition to green energy. So many have the attitude that it is up to the government to address these issues, and then all will be fine. Many are angry at the government’s inaction on climate change, but resist the smallest changes in their lives.
The purpose of this diary is to try and reach others who are not so brainwashed by these attitudes and demonstrate just how easy it is to make a significant reduction in energy consumption. I am hoping some examples from my life will motivate others to seek similar changes in their own lives and even better, to share this with others to try and get a large scale movement to implement conservation.
I have seen first-hand that almost all households and businesses can reduce their energy consumption by 30% to 50% immediately. Let me give you some real world examples:
1) The air pollution control agency I use to work for implemented an energy conservation program for their office in 2000 when the fake energy crisis hit California. They re-programmed the office thermostats to turn off at lunch and 30 minutes before quitting. Required all employees to turn off lights and computers in their office if they were going to be away for more than 15 minutes. Reduced the overhead lighting and allowed desk lighting to be used if needed. They appointed an “energy tsar” to enforce these rules. These changes resulted in a 30% reduction in electricity usage that has been maintained to today.
2) I realized one day that the air monitoring stations we operated that are scattered across our county consumed more electricity than the entire office. This is because they run 24/7 and the equipment must be temperature controlled for the data to be valid. Traditionally the equipment is installed in a trailer or small building/room with a big air conditioner that runs continuously. One winter morning I arrived at a station when it was below freezing outside and when I entered the station, the air conditioner was running. I realized then that we were wasting huge amounts of electricity that we could conserve at these sites. I did some experimentation and through a re-design of some of the air flow equipment, moving heat sources like pumps outside, enclosing the equipment in a well-insulated chamber, using a simple vent fan to use outside air to cool when it was cool outside, and a super-efficient small air conditioner to cool when the outside air was not cool enough cut the electrical consumption of the sites in half. This saves the agency about $7K per year in electricity costs. And after sharing this with other agencies (whose mission is to control air pollution) I have yet to get anyone to implement this proven approach that would not only conserve energy but save the cash strapped agency a significant expenses.
3) We implemented conservation at our house that includes:
a. All CFL lighting
b. All appliances like computers that don’t really turn off when you turn them off are plugged in through strips that we turn off when not in use.
c. Added insulation to windows that are not in use and added weather-stripping to plug any leaks.
d. Stopped using a clothes drier and replaced with a homebuilt solar powered linear clothes drier (clothes line).
e. Installed a small energy star air conditioner on one room that we use in place of the central air system for the whole house. The central AC consumes over 6000 watts, the small room AC consumes 400 watts. We only run the central unit one or two times a year when we have friends visiting and need the whole house cool.
After making these simple changes we purchased a grid tied solar PV system that was designed to provide 100% of the power our house historically used. We also installed a homebuilt solar hot water heater made from mostly recycled materials (total cost about $100) that provides all of our hot water in the summer and reduces the energy needed for our hot water in the winter. After a year or so, our conservation efforts were working so well that we had so much excess electricity generated by our PV system that we purchased an old 1982 electric car that we charge from this excess electricity and drive every day. Truly a zero emission car.
These examples are just examples. Not everyone can do exactly these things. But I share them to demonstrate a point. There are huge opportunities for ALL of us to dramatically reduce our energy usage. There are also many alternate transportation options that I didn’t have room to discuss here. If someone requests in the comments, I will compile a list of transportation and home/business conservation ideas and post as another diary. This list is long as there are almost endless possibilities if one is willing to reject the culture of waste and embrace the idea of making small adjustments in your life to conserve.
I hope that I have inspired others. Like I said, the restraints on conservation are behavioral not technical. We all must look inside ourselves and ask if we are willing to make these small accommodations for the greater good. Our government seems to be failing us on addressing these pressing problems, so what better way to lead than by individual example. The added benefit is how good you will feel when you are contributing to the solution, not to the problem.
By the way, there is a self-serving interest in making these changes. It should be clear to all that energy will become more scarce and expensive over the next couple of decades. By reducing your consumption now and using the savings to implementing solar or other alternative sources for yourself, you are insulating yourself and your family from skyrocketing energy prices, better yet you are taking the most important step towards reducing the impact of climate change.