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My Energy Plan and Suggestions for Yours!

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I grew up on a farm and often heard my dad say, “waste not, want not,” and I have always tried not to waste energy. I  remember bragging about my Fiat getting over 30 mpg, when my friends were bragging about 0 to 60 mph times. We built a house twenty years ago that doesn’t waste energy – it exceeds today’s Energy Star Home standards.

But in 2006, I decided I wanted to do more than just not “waste” energy. I decided that I wanted to live comfortably but burn as little fossil fuel as possible. I’m not sure what my “share” is, but I want to use less. If you consider the seven billion people, using your share is nearly impossible and that is a troubling thought. But wanting and doing are two different things, so I dug in and drew up my first Energy Reduction Plan – it focused on home, transportation and food.

First I calculated we were using about 500 million BTUs (mmBTU) of energy: Home, 79 mmBTUs (16%); Transportation, 171 mmBTUs (34%) and Food, 250 mmBTUs (50%). Notice, food is 50% of our energy usage? This is why food is an important part of our Community focus! See Start Here! for a worksheet to estimate your energy use. Having an understanding about just how much energy your family uses is both frightening and motivating.

There were two parts to our plan – short-term and long-term. Short term we wanted to cut 10% from our total energy use. Long-term we wanted to have a positive energy house, cut our purchased transportation fuels by 75% and cut our food energy in half. Over the years there have been many long-term plans and many short-term plans and many detailed project plans. It is important to adjust your plan, and re-plan, based on what happens. Nevertheless, here is what we have accomplished so far and what we plan to do in the next three years.

Short-Term Plan

First, I attacked the low hanging fruit (actually fruit on the ground, in this case) – I swapped my 1990 BMW 535 (239,000 miles, 225 HP, 20 MPG) that I had loved dearly for a 2002 Jetta TDI (diesel, 66,000 miles, 90 HP, 50+ MPG) that I have come to love even more. Transportation energy went from 171 mmBTUs down to 103 mmBTUs.

Next, I started a series of projects to reduce energy use in the house. Our current home is a rather large (3200 SF) southern colonial, carriage house. I built it circa 1990, and based on suggestions from Bruce Brownell of Adirondack Alternate Energy, I insulated it with 4” of continuous rigid insulation (polyisocyanurate) on all six sides. This has proven to be a very effective approach.

The house is all electric, except for the wood stove and solar gains. Our primary heat source is a geothermal heat pump. In 2005 we used 18,500 kWh and burned about a cord of wood.  

  • I made three passes through our house replacing electric-sucking incandescent bulbs with CFLs (compact florescent lights) and in some cases LED (light emitting diode) bulbs. Estimated annual savings 600 kWh.
  • Serendipity – In 2007 our electric dryer broke. Mostly my wife decided we could do without this energy hog. I built a Linear Solar Dehydrator (LSD – aka, clothes line) and she bought clothes racks. We haven’t used a watt of electric to dry clothes since. Estimated annual savings about 1300 kWh.
  • We replaced our 1984 18 cubic foot refrigerator with a no frills, Energy Star 21 cubic foot refrigerator. We now have two kids, so the extra space was necessary and is much appreciated. Estimated annual savings 800 kWh.
  • I air-sealed our basement (primarily open connections to garage) and dramatically reduced the summer humidity level, usually eliminating the need for a dehumidifier (however this year we needed it; there was just too much rain and humidity). Estimated annual savings, about 600 kWh.
  • Serendipity strikes again – our geothermal heat pump heat exchanger developed a crack. Replacing the heat exchanger would cost about half of what replacing the whole heat pump would cost and we’d still have a 20 year old heat pump. So we replaced the heat pump with an updated mechanical marvel with a COP (coefficient of performance) almost 30% higher than the original one. Estimated annual savings 2,400 kWh.
  • Greater family awareness of energy resulted in shutting off lights and TV when not in use, using less hot water, using less air conditioning, tolerating 64 degrees on the few coldest nights and not using supplemental electric heat, etc. Estimated annual savings 1,300 kWh.
  • In September 2010, we installed a four-panel solar domestic hot water heating system with an 80 gallon pre-heat tank. Estimated annual savings is 1,800 kWh.

Total electric reductions are about 8,800 kWh (about $1,400) annually. However life isn’t fair; over the last six years our children went from 4 & 7 to 10 & 13. Four and seven year-olds do not take many showers, play many video games or watch nearly as much TV. So while I am working on reducing these activities (I sound like my father, “turn off all those lights”), our overall electric usage went from 18,500 to 12,000 (18,500 – 8,800 + 2,300) and I feel like I’m holding back the tide of youthful exuberance. 12,000 kWh is equal to about 41 mmBTUs, plus a cord of firewood (20 mmBTUs). Our home energy went from 79 mmBTUs down to 61 mmBTUs.  

I have made essentially no real progress on growing and buying more food locally. I have been busy but mostly because old habits are hard to change, especially when I’m not in charge of buying food. We had a modest garden a couple of years, but I didn’t get a lot of enthusiasm from my family for the work involved in growing or even eating fresh garden produce. Now we are the typical, statistical suburban family of four, and just like most every other family of four there are roughly 278 mmBTUs expended to deliver our agri-business, supermarket delivered food.

Overall: 500 mmBTUs down to 412 mmBTUs or a 18% reduction.

Long-term Plan

Our Long-term plan in 2006 has become our short-term (3 years?) plan today.

We plan to replace our minivan (22 mpg) with an all electric car, such as Nissan’s Leaf (367 mpg according to DOE formula). I’m on the list but having a hard time moving ahead for primarily financial reasons (purchase cost and I have no idea what it will cost to replace the battery). While I’m doing this mostly for environmental reasons, I don’t want a car that expires in nine or 10 years. In any case, we will buy an electric vehicle in the next three years. Plus we expect to reduce our driving from a total of 28,000 miles a year today to 20,000 miles a year. Overall, this should bring us down to 40 mmBTUs.

We are building a 100% Solar Home. I like to say 100% solar because there will be no fossil fuels burned, just energy from the sun. It can also be called a Positive Energy Home, as Carl McDaniel calls his. The house will be very well insulated and very air tight. It is not as small as I would have liked, but it is a good step in the right direction: 3200 SF down to 2100 SF. There will be no central heating system, but there will be passive solar, active solar and a wood stove. With a 6.2 kW array, we should produce at least 6,800 kWh annually. I estimate we will use about 5,000 for house operations and that will leave 1,800 for transportation. I expect we will need less than ½ cord of firewood to make thermal ends meet. I will include more on the house in my Solar Design series. Ultimately, our house will be net-zero – 100% Solar.

The one thing we have done over the last six years is eat a lot less beef, a little less chicken and more grains, vegetables and fruits. We will continue working on that, plus we will garden much more after we move to the new house and we will have a few chickens and maybe a goat. At this point, I am not overly optimistic on a huge reduction of energy, but we do expect a significant reduction, say 20% or down to 200 mmBTUs.

Planned energy use is: Home, 79 mmBTUs down to 0 BTUs ; Transportation, 171 mmBTUs down to 40 mmBTUs (purchased); and Food, 250 mmBTUs down to 200 mmBTUs; or overall 500 mmBTUs down to 290 mmBTUs (42% overall reduction). 

If we accomplish what we have set out to do in the next three years, we will not yet be where we want to be. At that point, our main focus will be to reduce energy in food. I’ll learn a lot from Nancy, Tamara, Cheryl and others in our Local Food blog about how to grow, store and prepare food, and I will learn a lot more about what is available locally (I’m starting with Cheryl’s An 80/20 Approach. I expect that in three years we will be able to put a “final” plan in place that will get us to the to goals we set out six years ago. I expect if you set out to reduce your energy usage, you will be able to do so as well.

Summary and Suggestions

Reducing the energy you use is not difficult (it takes an open mind, the willingness to learn, common sense, determination, work you can do yourself, and good contractors to do work you can’t do). It also takes an investment that will repay you in many ways. The reductions can be dramatic (30 – 70% long-term). It is as much about “thinking” differently about energy, as it is about technology and investments, but they are required as well. 

A good place to start is with a general understanding of how much energy you are currently using. See Start Here! for the information needed and a worksheet to estimate you energy use in the three main areas: home, transportation and food.

Next, sit down and talk about it. Read a little. Imagine what you might accomplish and the benefits you’d get – environmental, less dollars exported, save money, energy independence, personal satisfaction, etc. Set your long-term and short-term goals - percent overall reduction and reduction in each of the three main areas. Set your goals by year if you want to be more aggressive; set them just long-term if you are not as number focused, but please do set goals.

Decide where you want to focus in the next 3-5 years (Long-Term Plan). No, this isn’t something you can do in a week or a year. First, you can (and probably should) target easily obtained improvements in each of the three areas. List the general areas you will work on by year.

Now take a look at you first year's objectives and draft your short-term plan – list specific items to address over the next six to 12 months, in the order you plan to do them. Estimate how much each item might cost in your time and money and how much you might save (don’t worry about being precise; you will get the actual numbers later). Sign it and save these plans.

Now get to work! Look at item #1 and pick up a caulk gun or the phone! If you don’t know what to do first, Ask Our Team that is what we are here for! Keep checking with our Community; we will provide specific direction and advice in many areas over the months and years to come. Good luck and enjoy this process. Think of it as a hobby and you will enjoy it all the more!


Comments on "My Energy Plan and Suggestions for Yours!"

  1. OEIC default avatar Ed Bishop October 31, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Good one, Dan.

    I never realized the impact food has on energy.

  2. OEIC default avatar David Hauber January 03, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    This is a great article! Drying clothes indoors in the winter would also improve humidity. How much $ did/will you save?  What is the payback?

  3. Dan Gibson's avatar Dan Gibson January 05, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Thanks Dave. It is hard to say exactly how much we saved air drying our clothes, but I estimated 1300 kWh per year, based on the change we saw in our bills, NYSERDA/TREAT model standards, and other published clothes drying estimates. Our new, 100% Solar house, will have 8 submeters to help analyze where the electric goes; so for example, we will know exactly how much energy goes to cooking and laundry. I will then be able to put a temporary meter on the dryer (yes we will have a dryer - it is so convenient when you are in a rush) to see what that uses per use and over some period of time. Measuring does help in making decisions on where to save, but also I just like to know how much energy it cost to do whatever… Dan

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