Most of us underestimate or ignore our incredible dependence on electricity. But after the heat waves that swept the U.S. and most of Europe last month, it was impossible to look the other way. Temperatures skyrocketed, we jacked up the A/C, and – poof! – out went the power. Nothing like a blackout to remind us that we’re all connected by our need for electricity. But just as we can cause a major outage through the accumulation of our personal actions, we can as easily facilitate the reverse effect through simple, smart choices about what kind of energy we use and how we use it.
Today’s Green Building 101 talks about how to retrofit your home to be more energy-efficient, as well as how to convert to more clean, green and efficient sources of energy. There are lots of things you can do to cut back on those energy bills, from simply turning off lights, all the way to installing photovoltaics and going off the grid. However ambitious you feel, we’ve got you covered.
At home, you now have more choices than ever for becoming energy efficient and environmentally friendly. If you are building or renovating your house, you can get LEED-H points for everything from buying Energy Star appliances and lighting fixtures, to installing a renewable electricity generation system such as solar panels or wind turbines.
But even if you aren’t building or renovating right now, there are many little steps you can take to inch your way towards energy independence:
Green your utilities
A surprising number of power companies offer the option to purchase green power, and many that don’t supply renewable energy directly offer credit schemes that effectively offset standard energy consumption by helping to fund progress towards more sustainable sources. The EPA has a region-specific guide to help you locate a green power supplier in your area.
Cut down on energy use in your house:
1) Kill your vampire power: Keeping things plugged in, even when they are switched off, sips a constant stream of energy out of your power outlets. Unplug your cell phone chargers, stereos and toaster ovens, and watch your energy bills sink.
2) Buy Energy Star appliances: These are certified and labeled so that you know you are getting an energy efficient machine. If you have old, tired appliances in your house, consider investing in something new. Although you have to pay up front to buy something new, you’ll be surprised to see how much less cash efficient appliances demand over time.
3) Turn off your lights! You just don’t need to have them on that much – especially during the day if you have any daylight. And as we mentioned in last week’s GB101, compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) save energy over incandescents, and going to bed at a normal hour means that you won’t be — as the old cliché goes — burning the midnight oil.
Go off the grid
If you’ve already taken all the baby steps towards renewable energy and are ready for more serious action, you may want to consider setting up your own personal energy-generating system at home. Obviously, as with all building and renovation projects, this sort of thing is an investment and the upfront costs are not cheap. However, the cost of installing your own solar or wind generators often pays for itself in a few years time with all the money you save in energy bills – not to mention tax breaks and improved property values. Here are some of your options:
The sun is the most reliable, renewable and clean energy source we have, so it’s amazing to me that more people don’t use solar power. Not only can you use passive solar design to heat and cool your house more efficiently, but you can generate your own heat and electricty using photovoltaics. Typical barriers to entry in the past have included high costs, low efficiency and plain old reticence to stick bulky and ugly looking things like solar panels atop our roofs. However, there have been massive improvements in photovoltaic technology in the past few years, and with recent blackouts and spikes in energy costs – not to mention new tax breaks and solar legislation – it’s getting to the point where you really have no good excuse anymore.
Photovoltaic systems have become cheaper, more efficient, and most importantly, a lot better looking in the past few years. Say goodbye to the ugly awkward roof-mounted panels of the 70s – today’s photovoltaics are often incorporated directly into the materials you use to clad your house. There are now solar roofing shingles, solar side-cladding, and even solar-powered glass windows!
If you live in California, now is an especially sunny time for you…
Just this week, California’s governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the landmark million solar roofs bill, which will expand the tax rebate program, increase the number of people who can sell solar electricity back to utility companies, and require builders to offer solar power as a new home option beginning in 2011.
For more info about how to go solar in California, click here >
Often people have the idea that geothermal energy can only be harnassed in geologically active regions of the world such as Iceland, Italy and California. Not so! While that might be where the majority of geothermal power plants exist – anywhere you can drill down into the earth, you can heat up water: creating a clean, efficient energy source for heating and cooling your home, completely bypassing the whole need for boilers, furnaces and all that jazz.. In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed geothermal heat pumps – aka “ground-source heat pumps” – to be the most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective residential heating system available.
Surprisingly, a non-geologically active place like New York City (built on bedrock) is actually a great place for geothermal heat pumps, because granite is excellent for transferring heat. We discovered this exciting news after reading about a geothermally-heated townhouse in Tribeca.
For more information on geothermal heat pumps and geothermal power, check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s online resources >
Wind power is blowing up right now. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “Wind is the world’s fastest-growing energy source with an average annual growth rate of 29 percent over the last ten years.” Most people are familiar with the pinwheel-like design of a wind turbine; in rural areas, you’ll often see wind farms lined with giant, slow-spinning blades. The idea is simple: rotating turbine blades gather kinetic energy from the wind, spinning an internal shaft that generates power. This process is incredibly clean, producing zero emissions.
At home, there are two primary ways to get wind power: you can purchase it through a power company that offers wind, or you can get a residential-scale turbine for your own home. The first option tends to be easier, more scalable, and more reliable. The company Renewable Choice, for example, offers flexible services which allow you to switch to 100% wind, supplement your standard energy with partial wind power, or just purchase credits that offset your fossil fuel energy usage by supporting the advancement of wind technology.
If you get a small turbine for home, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you’re generating some power right on your property, and will likely save some money and use less energy from the municipal grid. However, when the wind isn’t blowing at your house, you can’t rely on the accumulated “energy bank” that comes with buying wind from a bigger supplier.
As the term suggests, micro-hydro is power generated from water currents — on a small scale. Compared to tidal (or lunar) power generated from ocean tides or large hydroelectric dams, micro-hydro generally comes from river currents and provides energy for a small number of buildings in close proximity to the source. The process mimics a wind turbine in that the running water rotates a wheel or blades that generate energy. While it’s not as practical or as widely applicable as solar or wind, micro-hydro is extremely economical, and where water is available and fast-flowing, it’s also highly efficient. Because it’s great for off-grid living, it’s also an excellent application in developing countries where there is no grid to connect to. Quite a good resource on small-scale hydro power can be found here.
If ever there were a concrete illustration of our ability to conserve power and advance sustainable technology, it’s the picture of an electric meter running backwards. “Net metering” is a method for incentivizing consumer investment in renewable energy portfolios. When customers generate more power than they are using, the excess gets stored for later use, or fed back into the grid for more even distribution across the board. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for consumers and suppliers alike, and it dramatically eases the environmental burden of power demands, all while giving renewable energy the added allure of financial gain for all. (See more at the U.S. Dept. of Energy.)
The U.S government now offers a number of financial incentives to help you go green. Check out:
Come back next week for more Green Building 101!