#1: By Mike Tidwell

by | Aug 26, 2002 | Archives

It's a lovely, breezy, early spring day, temperature in the forties, not a cloud in the sky. Inside my house, the temperature is a toasty 70 degrees as I reach for a cold beer from the refrigerator while turning the television to a spring training game. Later I'll unwind with a hot, steaming bath while listening to classical music CDs.

Just another glorious day of modern Western life — and profligate energy use — leading inexorably to runaway global warming, right?

Wrong. All but a small fraction of my household energy comes from renewable, CO2-nuetral sources. The electricity arrives from photovoltaic panels on the roof, the heating from a pot-bellied stove that burns corn kernels, and the hot water from a separate rooftop panel that converts sunlight to infrared heat.

I must be rich to afford such hi-tech extravagances, right? Wrong again. In my case, I'm a hopelessly middle-class, self-employed writer with a four-year-old son. My wife and I are spending the handsome sum of — get this — $30 per month to pay for them. That's all. For the cost of a cup of coffee a day we've gotten off the planet's back almost entirely. And here's the best part: Most of these planet-saving technologies are available and affordable right now for millions of American homeowners.

Last year's bombshell findings of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change motivated us to plot a home energy revolution. Disastrous planetary warming of up to 10.4 degrees by 2100 is doubly horrifying each time you look out at your innocent son playing whiffle ball in the backyard with playmates destined to live till 2070. In the wake of our government's failure to implement even the modest reductions of the Kyoto Protocol, we decided to take matters into our own hands. If our leaders won't lead, we Americans owe it to the rest of the world to get the job done on our own, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.

So we developed a $7500 budget, and borrowed the money in the form of a home equity loan. Our first step was to eliminate unnecessary energy consumption and to use more efficiently the energy you can't live without. We switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, bought an extremely high efficiency refrigerator and we began drying our clothes on a line. With these and other painless changes, including never *ever* illuminating an unoccupied room, we cut our electricity use a remarkable 52 percent.

It now became plausible to meet much of our electricity demand with our own solar generation. We found that we could go solar on a very tight budget. Our home state of Maryland offers grants of up to $3600 toward solar photovoltaic systems plus a generous tax deduction. With a hefty grant in hand, we went shopping for solar panels and got a big surprise: A solar advocacy group – the Virginia Alliance for Solar Electricity — was heavily discounting the price of panels thanks to a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Energy. Taking advantage of these programs and installing much of the system ourselves, we were able to put 36 solar panels on our southeast-facing back roof, generating 70 percent our electricity.

Amazingly, having tackled the big hurdle of electricity, we had almost half of our original budget still in hand to apply to our next big challenge: heating our house. A typical American household spends 44 percent of its total energy budget heating and cooling the home. As for cooling, our sturdy old house has high ceilings, partial shading from trees, and a nice sleeping porch, so we get by with ceiling fans. But in winter we spend up to $200 a month heating with natural gas. Given that our house was already reasonably well insulated, there could be no new savings through conservation. So we had to find a new source of heat.

But what? Thankfully, a small company in Hutchinson, Minnesota answered the question. American Energy Systems engineered the first ever corn-burning stove designed to heat modern homes. This relatively small and easy-to-install stove easily heats a two-thousand-square-foot home (ours is 1600 square feet).

Burning corn contributes almost nothing to global warming. Like all plant material, corn absorbs CO2 as it grows, and, with this stove, the corn burns so efficiently that the net CO2 released is negligible. Moreover, corn is cheaper than natural gas — we'll save $200-$300 per winter — and it's easily purchased even by big-city dwellers at outlying feed stores. Corn is an almost endless energy source; it's good for farmers, good for the climate, easy to use, saves money. No brainer.

Even after all of these purchases — fridge, bulbs, photovoltaic panels, stove — we still had enough money to tackle our last major source of greenhouse gas emission: Heating our water. And here we got lucky. Our heroic local solar contractor stumbled across a used but perfectly good 5- year-old solar hot-water system and sold it to us installed for $1000, thus closing out our expenditures at just over $7500. The solar system “pre-heats” the water for our natural gas heater, so we're guaranteed hot water year round no matter what the weather.

The bottom line: Except for a little natural gas to cook our food and heat our water on really cloudy days, plus the small portion of our electricity that still comes from our local utility, we now contribute nothing to global warming through home energy use. In the process, we've reduced our estimated CO2 contribution from 19,488 pounds per year to just under 2010 pounds, a drop of almost 90 percent!!

We also do well by doing good. By conserving energy and switching to renewables we save an estimated $578 each year. That's $48.17 per month. Our monthly payment for the $7500 loan is $78.50. The difference is a little more than a dollar a day, a minuscule price to help preserve the planet. And that sum will quickly diminish as energy prices continue to rise. In ten years, when our loan is repaid, savings probably close to $1000 per year will go straight into our pockets.

Where's the catch? Actually, there is none. Other than occasionally loading and cleaning the corn stove, our lives of modern comfort are essentially unchanged. Except for one thing: We now live with greater hope for our son's future and that of the whole planet. If we can make such big changes so quickly and for so little money, the rest of the world, when it finally makes up its mind, can do the same.