Using renewable energy means taking responsibility for our own needs. If you've started by making sure your needs are in control, your chance for success is high!

Do A Little Energy Homework Before Investing In Renewable Energy Production

Jennifer Barker | EORenew

Do a Little Energy Homework befo

Jennifer Barker, EORenew

Solar modules glitter in the sun like diamonds, and wind turbines dance on the breezes. Everybody wants them. But when it comes to spending your money, there are other places where you really ought to spend it first. Why? Because if you concentrate on energy efficiency before buying those glittery modules and dancing blades, they will provide more of the energy you need, and you will be more satisfied with your investment in the long run. Here, let me show you how to get the most out of those pretty things

Why should we care how much energy we use? Some of our energy in the Northwest comes from hydropower dams, but dams have a useful life which eventually comes to a close. Most of our energy in the US is derived from fossil fuels. We aren't going to run out any time soon, but there is a point at which production must inevitably decline. That point may be very soon, and we want to be prepared. The more efficient we are with our energy use, the easier it will be to reach the point of self-sufficiency.

Assess Your Energy Use

Start by assessing how much energy you use. Look at your utility bills, and check for charts tracking your monthly usage over the past year. These are useful figures to know, and we will come back to them. Look around your home to see what is plugged in and hooked up to an energy source. The biggest energy hogs in your home are liable to be space heating and cooling, water heating, clothes drying, lighting, and refrigerators and freezers (especially older ones).

First, ask yourself if you need to use that energy. Do you really need the extra refrigerator in the basement that stores only a few food items? Have your needs changed since you bought that big freezer for the family?

How much does a kilowatt-hour (KWH) cost? If you pay the utility to provide your power, an extra KWH per day costs you about $30/year. If you use solar to provide your power, it takes 330 Watts of solar panels, balance-of-system, and other operating costs (total $3500) to provide 1KWH/day in the sunny half of Oregon! People don't seem to think so, but utility power is really quite cheap. Where is it going to come from when fossil fuels are in decline, and the dams have lived out their useful life? The next sources we obtain power from will be dramatically more expensive!

Get More for Less

What does it take to save a KWH per day? Replace the bulbs in the three lights you use the most with compact fluorescents. Hang a load of laundry outdoors twice a month. Put your TV and VCR on a plug strip, and only turn it on when you are watching.

Keep finding ways to save more. Your entertainment center is probably what's called a "phantom load," a term which refers to something that uses energy even when its switch is turned "off." A normal "phantom load" is 10-50W!! The average house uses 100W, 24 hours/day, to power its phantom loads. That's almost 2.5 KWH per day.

Look around your house for other phantom loads. They usually have lighted displays, glowing LEDs (light-emitting diodes), or power supply cubes on their cords. If you don't need that item to be "on" 24/7, put it on a plug strip and turn it off when not in use! If you replace the bulbs in all the lights you use regularly with compact fluorescents, they can pay for themselves several times over during their lifetime (but do read the packages for compatibility with your fixtures and ambient temperatures).

Your appliances matter too. When you shop for a new appliance, look for the ENERGY STAR® label. A new ENERGY STAR® refrigerator uses less than half the energy of a 10-year old model. If the appliance is something you use less often, replacing it may make less sense, but appliances you use every day should be analyzed carefully.

When it comes to heat, just making more energy isn't the answer. Remember, comfort is what we are trying to achieve. We are just trying to do it efficiently, using as little energy as realistically possible. The biggest bang for your heat-saving buck comes from finding leaks in your building envelope and plugging them. Weatherstrip, caulk, and seal. Insulate pipes, walls, attics and floors.

All energy can be broken down into BTUs. HHI (Home Heating Index) is a measure of BTU's per square foot per heating degree day used for heating your home. In Pendleton, Oregon, if you can cut your HHI in half from 16 to 8 in a 2,000 square foot house, you'd save a total of 82 million BTUs, or 586 gallons of stove oil per year!

Try this simple solution for more comfort: plant a deciduous tree on the southwest side of your house. The sun will come through the bare branches in the winter when you need the solar gain, and be blocked by the leaves in summer, keeping you cool.

Let's go back to those utility bills. You should notice a difference in the last few months, as your efficiency measures take effect. If you still need to track down some more culprits, you might want to invest in a portable KWH meter, which you can use to monitor the electrical consumption of individual appliances (some brands: Kill-a-Watt, Watts Up).

Don't ignore the energy hog in your driveway. Cars use more energy than you think! A gallon of gasoline is a concentrated dose of energy containing about 115,000 BTUs. That is the equivalent of 34 KWH, or enough to run the average American house for a day. The weekly output of an 1120 Watt grid-tied solar array equals 75,000 BTUs, or the equivalent of 2.6 quarts of gasoline. Petroleum supplies fully 90% of transportation energy. Walk, take the bus, or ride a bike. It will save more energy than any other single thing you can do!

Now you are ready to think about making your own energy. Using renewable energy means taking responsibility for our own needs. If you've started by making sure your needs are in control, your chance for success is high! You can reach high, and grab that glittery prize.

Resources: - Energy efficient homes and businesses. -- US Dept. of Energy's "Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy" site.

Jennifer Barker is the executive director of EORenew, the organization which sponsors SolWest Fair She is a BPA-certified energy auditor.

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