Doing It Yourself
by Will Stewart

During the initial debate about the future US energy policy direction, we heard a number of statistics, such as the average American uses 33 times the energy that the average citizen of India uses. The results are rapidly diminishing domestic petroleum resources, smog, acid rain, climate change, and a burgeoning foreign trade deficit. Ever wonder what one person can do to make a difference? I decided to take on the challenge, and set about to:

Energy Efficient House
New houses built in the US today are rarely very energy efficient, as homebuilders view the energy profile of a home as relatively unimportant to buyers (though West Coast buyers now have a different perspective). Homebuilders are risk-averse, as slow-selling or failed projects can lead to diminished profits or even bankruptcy. So they put cheap, energy-wasting HVAC, appliances, and insulation in most homes. The result is a slightly lower initial purchase price, but much larger utility bills for the life of the home.

I initially considered renovating an existing home to improve its insulation and add passive and photovoltaic solar features. After finding that many homeowner association covenants discouraged solar panels, I chose to build my home in 1997 and start a small farm at the same time, 20 minutes from my work location. I discovered a manufactured housing producer nearby (Foremost Industries) who was willing to make the necessary design modifications. My overall approach covered all aspects of energy consumption;

Household transportation energy consumption frequently surpasses residential energy consumption, so we take extra care here. The powerful imagery thrust upon us by advertisements (and movie product placement agreements) steers us towards purchasing a vehicle that projects an image of our choice to others. If we can resist the impulse to buy a vehicle that possesses such imagery, we can then choose one that is far less expensive in initial and operating costs. Our selection here was a Saturn SW1 for our "big" family car and, more recently, a Honda Insight for my commuting vehicle (our location is unfortunately not near a mass transit stop). The Toyota Prius is another excellent choice for family/commuting purposes. I am now in the consulting business, so my job destinations are not always predictable. However, the Insight excels in fuel economy, and I am currently on an assignment where I can carpool, which further extends the fuel savings. And I can frequently take on assignments where I can telecommute much of the time, eliminating the need even to climb into my car for up to a week at a time.

For running errands, I now utilize my bicycle for most jaunts into town (4 miles away), including the hardware store, the video store, and the grocery store. Showing up in cycling gear at citizen meetings and government public input sessions shows one's commitment to breaking the energy addiction. Seeing others start to do the same thing demonstrates the snowball effect of such simple measures. Bike trailers are also available to carry heavy items (including refrigerators and couches!), so the perceived need for pickups and SUVs is delusional.


What might I do differently?
Renovating/refitting a home near a mass transit location is also a good way to reduce one's energy footprint. Living in an apartment/condo in a city with nearby mass transit also achieves the same goals. I'm currently working with my local government officials to improve a design for a new transit development to resemble a carfree district, already implemented in several European countries. Such a design creates a completely pedestrian community around a mass transit hub, with stores (grocery, pharmacy, etc) and offices a short stroll away. Car-sharing takes care of those times when one needs to go where transit currently does not.

So when you hear some people complain about high energy bills, you know that something CAN be done. And such a solution will also decrease the amount of pollution generated, reduce the emissions of climate change gases, lower the foreign trade deficit, and reduce the rate at which we deplete our energy resources. If we rely purely on market forces to save us, we will suffer the fate of boiled frogs. A frog placed into boiling water will leap out immediately. But a frog placed into cool water that is gradually heated will remain until cooked. Now is the time to make the leap to reducing your energy demand and protecting your grandchildrens' future.

Will Stewart