Energy savings begin with efficiency

Last week, while volunteering at a green building workshop, my cell phone started vibrating. I stepped out of the room and took the call. A television newsman wanted to do an interview about solar energy and asked if I was available — as in right now. He had heard about our net-zero energy home and asked if we could meet there. I appreciate any opportunity to share information about green living so I arranged for my colleague to cover the event and I headed home.

The interview was fun. As we spoke, it seemed that the reporter was genuinely excited about solar energy and green living. What I saw on the news that evening was not what I expected however. Some fundamentally important information was missing and the focus was mostly on how expensive solar power is.

I don’t attribute this to the interviewer, but rather the medium. Today’s news is often like a fast food version of reality, delivering rapid-fire sound bites as efficiently as Jack in the Box burgers. The content is filling but it’s missing the depth and detail of a full-course gourmet meal. So, while I thank the local news for covering the issue of renewable energy, I would like to provide some information that didn’t make it to the screen that night.

Here’s a brief recap of our personal energy story.

My wife and I started on a journey of efficiency in 2000 with our first hybrid vehicle. At the time, gas was cheap, but I knew what was coming. Over the years, we chose energy efficiency whenever an opportunity presented itself. We made changes to our lifestyle, including downsizing to a smaller but more comfortable home that was built to Energy Star standards.

We selected a home that had most windows to the south, a few on the north and only one each on the east and west sides. This arrangement provides warmth from the winter sun but blocks most of the summer heat. It also had a “solar-friendly” south roof that would work well for a future renewable energy system. More on that later.

We planted shade trees in just the right places to shield west-facing windows from the hot summer sun. A setback thermostat helps with efficiency when running the heat or air conditioning, but it’s turned off whenever some open windows and a fan can do a better job for less. We use the lights we need, but never leave them on for no reason. SolaTubes are used for day lighting.

Whenever it was time for a new appliance, we searched the Energy Star Web site and found the most efficient model that met our needs and budget. We recycled as best we could, conscious that waste equals lost opportunity.

We made decisions based on long-term benefits. For example, the first compact fluorescent lamps we purchased years ago were quite expensive, but the energy savings still made them a good value. Now CFLs are so inexpensive that they are almost everywhere in our home. They are one of the best investments a homeowner can make. The few burnouts we’ve had are saved in a box for safe recycling (a local program will be here soon).

Notice I have not mentioned the solar panels on the roof. That’s because the most important part of the energy solution is efficiency. Every choice we’ve made for efficiency has been a good investment, economically and environmentally. Almost anyone can create similar results by consistently choosing efficiency first.

These decisions resulted in a comfortable home that required much less energy than average. We did not want to add an expensive solar system to an energy-hog home, but once our energy use was minimized, it made sense to take the final step. The smaller power bills helped us save some money while we waited for the right opportunity. When Nevada Power started the SolarGenerations rebate program, we took the plunge.

It was a big decision for us, but just like buying a car makes more sense than renting one over the long term, we wanted to own our energy production rather than continue with monthly payments for life. That is the key to an $8 monthly power bill.

The bottom line is that it all starts with efficiency. It’s not about how expensive solar power is. It’s about breaking the energy abuse habits we have grown accustomed to. Start small, but get started.

The excellent film “Kilowatt Ours” shows how a young couple with a tight budget made their modest home as efficient as possible. They cut their electric bill in half and used part of the savings to buy green power from the grid. Even without solar panels on their own roof, they were using 100 percent renewable energy and saving money too.

The real news story isn’t solar panels. It’s energy efficiency. The most bang for your green living buck.

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, specializing in renewable energy, green building, alternative transportation and lifestyle choices for both residential and commercial clients. The company is committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Rypka can be reached via e-mail at steve@greendream.biz. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.

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