Cash-strapped utility companies are beginning to reconsider the strengths of solar energy. According to ex-NASA engineer O. Glenn Smith, solar-panel satellites could gather massive amounts of energy and beam it to earth for the price electricity costs now. He tells Alex Chadwick that NASA should pay for the research.
More than a dozen states have adopted ambitious goals to cut back on energy use. My home state, Maryland, has one of the most aggressive plans.
This spring, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a law that calls for a 15 percent reduction in electric use, per capita, over the next seven years. If successful, Maryland will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a cleaner environment. These efforts also will reduce the state's need to build new power stations and transmission lines. While no one will be rewarded for making that 15 percent reduction, or punished for failing to meet it, it is an important effort.
To reach the goal, local utilities are being asked to come up with conservation plans. Public education plans will also be initiated to encourage the state's 5.6 million residents to cut down on electricity use in their homes.
I asked an energy-efficiency expert to come to my 100-year-old clapboard house in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and show me what I can do to cut back on my electricity use. Jennifer Thorne Amann from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy cheerfully took up the challenge. Here is what she found on a walk through my house:
Insulation And Cracks
A lot of energy goes out of the cracks around doors and windows and through poorly insulated walls and ceilings. Thorne Amann suggested that I use a stick of incense or a candle to look for wasteful drafts by following the whiff of smoke. She told me that for less than $20 I could buy sealants to stop those drafts and save on heating and cooling.
She also said that for $250 to $500 I could hire a contractor to attach a gizmo called a "blower door" to my front door. This device sucks air from the house and helps identify the big leaks.
Lights consume about 10 percent of the electricity in a typical home. I replaced a lot of my incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs). These energy-efficient bulbs use one-fourth the amount of electricity that incandescent bulbs use. But I also have about 10 fixtures that are on dimmers — and standard CFLs do not work there. Dimmable CFLs are $17 apiece at my local hardware store. These light fixtures are not used all that much in my house, so I may not recoup the cost of those bulbs. Thorne Amann said prices should come down, because a new federal law will eventually phase out incandescent bulbs. I'll wait.
My refrigerator is 11 years old. It seems like a good candidate for replacement, because refrigerators built after 2001 are in general 30 percent more efficient than older models. However, we ran the numbers and found that my old fridge was actually pretty good. I would save a bit in energy costs, but not enough to make up for the purchase price of a new fridge.
The old freezer in my basement was a different story. If I traded it in for a new model, I would save $100 a year in electric bills and reduce my household electricity use by 6 percent. To see these savings, however, I would have to spend $450 for a new freezer — a painful move in the short run but worth it in the long run.
Electronics often consume up to a quarter of a home's electricity. In particular, appliances such as televisions and cable boxes are always drawing energy. Since I do not have a television or cable box, I avoid these are expenses. However, upon visiting a neighbor's house, I found that an ordinary TV draws around 60 watts, even if it is turned off most of the time.
Also drawing "phantom power" is anything with a charger that stays plugged in – from cell phones to laptops. So Thorne Amann suggested that I unplug those "bricks" when they are not actually doing work. It is even worthwhile for me to unplug my electric toothbrush stand, which draws two watts of electricity. That may not sound like much, but it is more energy than the lights in my bathroom use.
Heating And Cooling
Heating and air conditioning units are typically the biggest home energy users. My system failed last fall. When I bought a new one, I spent a few extra thousand dollars to get the most efficient model on the market. That probably was not a sensible investment from the standpoint of strict dollars and cents, but I did it anyway to reduce my family's "carbon footprint." Thorne Amann said even with a new system, I could save energy by making sure the ducts were taped up tightly (not with standard "duct tape" but with specialized metallic sealing tape). I might also consider insulating my ducts to save energy.
My electric water heater turned out to be the bogeyman in my house. It consumes a shocking 35 percent of my home's electricity. (Thorne Amann figured out its consumption by researching my model's specifications, which is not easy for most people to figure out. This is one reason why it may be worthwhile to use the services of an expert.) I could buy a marginally more efficient electric heater, or I could save a lot of electricity — and carbon emissions — if I switched to natural gas. Thorne Amann told me I could save by switching to low-flow shower heads and washing my clothes in cold water.
Thorne Amann said my family and I could also change some everyday behaviors around the house to reduce electricity consumption. For example, we could hang our laundry out to dry instead of using the electric dryer. I could set our thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter. And I could remind the kids to turn off lights and computers when they are not using them.
The Bottom Line
I can make a difference with simple steps, such as installing low-flow shower heads and compact fluorescent light bulbs. But if I want to get to the Maryland goal of a 15 percent reduction, I will have to invest a few hundred dollars in a new freezer. I can go further, and even cut my electricity bill in half, by replacing my water heater. In four to six years, those investments will probably pay for themselves. The power bills will also remain low after that.