Surprise: Not-so-glamorous conservation works best
Efficient appliances and flourescent bulbs are easy upgrades that make a big difference, experts say.
When high school science teacher Ray Janke bought a home in Chicopee, Mass., he decided to see how much he could save on his electric bill.Skip to next paragraph
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He exchanged incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, put switches and surge protectors on his electronic equipment to reduce the "phantom load" – the trickle consumption even when electronic equipment is off – and bought energy-efficient appliances.
Two things happened: He saw a two-thirds reduction in his electric bill, and he found himself under audit by Mass Electric. The company thought he'd tampered with his meter. "They couldn't believe I was using so little," he says.
Mr. Janke had hit on what experts say is perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective place to reduce one's energy consumption: home.
Moving closer to public transportation or riding a bike instead of driving is not an option for many, but changing incandescent bulbs for fluorescent and buying more efficient appliances is not only possible, it quickly pays for itself with savings.
In the end, not-very-glamorous changes like these as well as obsessively sealing and insulating your home will save more than, in the words of one expert, "greenie weenie" additions like green roofs and solar panels. Twenty-two percent of all energy in the United States is used for residential purposes. (Transportation accounts for 28 percent.) And although residences consume only about two-fifths of this as electricity, because electrical generation is inherently inefficient, it accounts for 71 percent of household emissions. A home's electrical use may be responsible for more CO2 emissions than the two cars in the driveway. Ultimately, changes made at home may be the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to reduce one's carbon footprint.
The future apparently holds less-snowy winters, earlier springs, and hotter summers because of human-produced greenhouse gases, scientists say. Accumulating evidence supports climate scientists' gloomy forecasts. Five of the hottest years measured since modern record keeping began a century ago occurred in the past decade, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Last year, the year of Katrina and Rita, set records for hurricane activity.
"If you love your children, replace your lights," says Joseph Lstiburek, principal engineer of Building Science, a Boston-based consulting company that specializes in building technology.
The No. 1 contributor of carbon emissions worldwide is the US. It is responsible for 22 percent of the world's annual emissions. In second place, China produces 17 percent, while Russia at No. 3, contributes 6 percent. By another measure, of the top five producers (responsible for more than half of global emissions), the US is by far the highest per capita contributor – 20 metric tons per person per year compared with China's 3.6 metric tons. (Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration.)
But the flip side of these numbers is that, of the top five CO2-producing countries – India and Japan are fourth and fifth, respectively – an individual American can have the greatest impact in reducing carbon emissions.
The best place to start is to reduce electricity consumption. Power plants lose two-thirds of their energy in waste heat. For every one unit of electricity your space heater consumes, for example, two units have been lost at the power plant. This inefficiency is reflected in electricity's cost to consumers. Even though more American homes use more natural gas than anything else, homeowners spend more than twice as much on electricity – $100 billion annually compared with $47 billion. Not only is electricity more expensive, but because of its inherent inefficiency, it contributes 21 percent more CO2 annually than does transportation.