Think globally? Act domestically.
An investment in slowing global warming – and saving money – begins at home
Consumers eager to slow global warming increasingly have a financial incentive to think close to home when making choices about where to invest.Skip to next paragraph
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Efficiency-enhancing systems, from triple-paned windows to water-saving washers offer more than a boost to a home's long-term value, experts say. They also immediately slash onerous energy bills and shrink a household's "carbon footprint" – the emissions that contribute to global warming.
"The good thing about the recent run-up in energy prices, which is overall tough on a lot of people," says Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va., "is that it makes the payback for investing in efficiency much quicker,"
Example: Natural gas prices were 50 percent higher this past winter than five years ago. At these new prices, homeowners who pony up an extra $500 to get a high-efficiency feature on a new furnace are likely to see their investment recouped in savings in just two or three years, rather than four or five.
Such demonstrable synergies in the home between what's good both for the planet and the bankbook come at a time when critics are lamenting trade-offs associated with other ethically minded investments. Socially responsible mutual funds, for instance, have in recent years underperformed their unscreened rivals who have invested without hesitation in highly profitable oil companies and weaponsmakers.
What's more, buildings are a major contributor to global warming. According to a June 2005 report from the Pew Center, buildings contribute a larger share of America's carbon dioxide emissions than transportation does. About half of all emissions from buildings, 21 percent of the nation's total output, stem from home-energy consumption. (Think oil-fired furnaces and electrically powered air conditioning.)
But investing profitably in the home isn't as easy as simply buying all the latest technologies. Experts recommend a targeted approach to big-ticket items in order to derive the most bang for the buck. The game plan: Diagnose the biggest inefficiencies, then invest where necessary to collect big rewards. To avoid foolish mistakes, they say, start with an energy audit.
Energy audits pinpoint the physical locations where energy is being wasted. Public utilities routinely offer such services, often through an online analysis of energy bills, free of charge. For a few hundred dollars, a qualified contractor will conduct an on-site analysis and furnish a written report highlighting the opportunity spots.
The greatest potential gains often lurk in the areas of heating and cooling, which together account for 41 percent of energy usage in a typical home. That adds up to more than $600 per year in an average household which, according to the US Department of Energy, spends about $1,500 per year on energy bills.
But before buying new machinery, experts say, invest – if necessary – in making the living environment airtight. Otherwise, the benefits of efficient systems slip through the cracks along with the climate-controlled air.
"If you have any extra bucks, I would say, 'insulate your house,' " says Susanne Moser, a research scientist and public educator at the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment in Boulder, Colo. "We pump so much energy out into the universe by having ... badly insulated homes. That would be a huge difference you could make."
Insulation can cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to install, depending on the need. But the return is quick when homeowners spring for high "R" value ratings, says Jeffrey Langholz, an environmental policy expert at the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies and co-author of "You Can Prevent Global Warming (and Save Money!)." Someone who installs R-38 insulation in a typical 600-square-foot attic, for instance, will save about $225 annually in heating costs. The ecoconscious can use insulation made of recycled denim.