The cost of electricity is going up (both in dollars and in environmental and health impacts) and it doesn't show any signs of doing otherwise. About half of the energy in the American grid is coal generated. We won't bore you with what you already know: coal is a really stinky, dangerous, nasty, unsustainable, and silly way to make power and a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. By using less energy, and greening the electricity that we do use, we can lighten our footprint immensely. The subject of electricity and its environmental impacts is a massive one and we can't cover every corner of it here. This brief guide can offer some solid suggestions for greening your electricity and use thereof.
Top Green Electricity Tips
- Audit yourself
A home energy audit is a way to inventory your home's energy use, where energy is lost, and where it can be saved. You can do an energy audit yourself or get a pro. Many utilities also offer home and business energy audits for free.
- Reduce your use
The lowest hanging fruit just begging to be picked are simple energy-saving practices. They're also the most cost effective. Top tasks include:
- Replace your light bulbs with light emitting diodes (LEDs).They have come so far down in price that you should take a pass on compact fluorescents.
- Turn off lights and other devises when they're not needed. Check out the guide to green lighting guide for more lighting tips.
- Eliminating electronics that sleep on a standby setting; they continue to pull a current even when "turned off."
- "Wall warts," those clunky AC adaptors on many power cables, pull current, too, so those should be taken out of the wall when not in use -- this is also known as phantom power. Your best bet is a "smart" power strip, or a power strip that can be turned off at night.This is particularly important with some of the new game consoles that use a huge amount of power in standby mode.
- Clothes driers gobble up a lot of power, so line drying can be a great energy saver. When you do get a new dryer, look for Energy Star or the new heat pump style dryer.
- Put your house on a diet
Homes consume an enormous amount of energy, especially in heating and cooling, and American homes consume around six times the world average. Once you've audited your home for energy use (even if you haven't) some simple moves can cut your electricity bill. Keep your house cool with natural ventilation instead of air conditioning as much as possible. Use in-room, ceiling, or whole-house fans to move air throughout the house. Blocking sunlight during hot hours of the day can help lower your cooling load. If your house uses electricity for water heating, wrapping your water tank in an insulating blanket can save on power.
- Buy wise
After cooling and heating, appliances and other plug-in devises are the next biggest users of energy in your abode. When looking for new appliances, seek out the most energy-efficient models. Most new appliances come with a yellow EnergyGuide label which, like mileage ratings on cars, shows its consumption in terms of kWh per year. Also look for Energy Star rated products (more on Energy Star below). Electronics like computers and audio equipment can be big power suckers, too; use notebook computers instead of desktops if your uses permit. See below for more on greening your computer usage. Being smart with lighting is another key way to green your power usage.
- Homemade juice
You think making your own bread at home feels good? There's nothing quite like the feeling of making your own electricity from the sun, wind, or water. Installing an home alternative energy system is becoming more and more cost effective as technology improves and assistance programs spread. Photovoltaic, or solar electric, systems are the most common. Depending on your available space, local climate, budget, and local utility, a solar electric system can provide all the energy needed for a typical home (and possibly more). Check with your local power utility about subsidy programs or other available programs.The price of solar has been dropping for years and now is affordable for almost anyone with a roof.
- Charge up your toys
For all the portable electronic gizmos in your life, consider feeding them green power with a solar charger. Some look like notebooks, cell phones, flowers, or are built into backpacks. Your MP3 player, laptop, PDA, cell phone, and camera can all be charged with portable solar, and you'll never find yourself searching for a plug.
- If you build it...you will save
A home or building designed and constructed around energy efficiency can realize enormous savings. Everything from the house size, positioning of the house, use of daylight and natural ventilation, lighting and appliances, and renewable energy system can push a building closer and closer to net zero energy consumption. If you are considering building a home, do serious renovations, or an addition, make sure that energy efficiency is a key design criterion. The Energy Star rating system has a home certification program, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) now has a rating system for residential homes. Other great standards are Net-zero and living building challenge. One of many great books to consult is Your Green Home, by Alex Wilson.
- Sign up for green power
Getting green power may be as easy as checking a box on your energy bill. In this sort of program, the local utility buys renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.) and then passes it along to customers. It often costs a bit more, but not much, and it helps support the industry for clean, green power. Before you sign up, though, ask where they're getting their power from. If it's a source like waste coal or waste-to-power, you might be better off buying your credits elsewhere.
- Think lifecycle
We all use energy. It's just a fact. Even an off-the-grid house is filled with embodied energy. Everything from the power it took to manufacture the solar panels (which was a lot), to the fuel burned in transporting the micro wind turbine from the factory, embodied energy, or lifecycle energy, is in everything we buy and use. Manufacturing, advertising, packaging, shipping, etc. are all part of a product's energy history. We should all learn to think of things this way. That’s why size matters so much; the less you build, the less material consumed and energy embodied. Solar panels, for example, have a great deal of energy embodied in them, much more than, say, a passive solar water heating system.
Green Electricity: By the Numbers
- 40 percent: Total U.S. energy consumption used by commercial and residential buildings.
- 67 percent: Amount of U.S. power that comes from coal, natural gas and petroleum, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
- 39 percent: Amount of U.S. power that comes from coal. Other power sources are broken down like this: 19 percent nuclear, 27 percent natural gas, 7 percent large hydroelectric, and 1 percent petroleum.
Green Electricity: Getting Techie
We use them, we pay for them, we talk about them. But do we really know what a kilowatt-hour is? A good way for our brains to handle the scope is to parse megawatts and kilowatts into something more easily digested, like everyday human activities. For example, here is what 1 kilowatt-hour can allow you to do: shave 1200 times with electric shavers (> 3 years), slice 100 loaves of breads, dry your hair 15 times, watch TV for four evenings, listen to 15 CDs, use a small refrigerator for 24 hours, microwave 20 meals, drill 250 holes, enjoy four evenings of light with 60 W incandescent bulbs or bask in 20 evenings of light with 11 W compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Net-metering is a very important concept in the world of home power generation. Net-metering means that if you produce your own electricity (with solar, wind, etc.) you can use this energy to offset the power you would otherwise buy from the utility company. Your NET power use refers to the balance of energy consumed from the grid and energy produced by your home system. Not all states have net metering laws in effect. For more info visit the DOE's page on the subject.