Monday, November 2, 2009

Simple actions help homeowners go green

Nice article in the THE TENNESSEAN yesterday...

Simple actions help homeowners go green

As Congress battles over controversial climate change legislation, Herb and Amy Williams of East Nashville have cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent.

The couple didn't put up solar panels or buy a hybrid car. They took the relatively low-cost steps of adding insulation to their home and sealing its crawl space and ducts. For this they not only cut their energy bills and their carbon footprint, they also will receive tax credits.

Finding the right triggers — whether they are financial incentives or providing facts — to persuade people nationwide to take simple actions like these could result in about a 20 percent reduction in household-related emissions within 10 years, according to a new study by Vanderbilt University researchers and others.

Overall, that would reduce total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by about 7.4 percent.

"It's not going to solve the whole problem, but it could be a good beginning while we're waiting for some of the harder, more experimental things to work themselves out," said Jonathan Gilligan, a co-author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Technology fixes will take time, as will Congress hammering out new legislation designed to reduce U.S. carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and help drive climate change.

After looking into past energy-efficiency programs around the country, the researchers targeted 17 household changes and determined the chances that people would actually make them.

Weatherization ranked highest. Low-flow shower heads and efficient appliances are among items that also had the most promise, with convenience being a key. Showing much less likelihood of catching on widely were setting back thermostats and using cold water for laundry. Carpooling was lowest of all.

In a perfect world where everyone did the right thing, the carbon from household energy use in a year might be voluntarily reduced by 200 million tons, said Gilligan, one of two Vanderbilt researchers who worked on the study, along with colleagues from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and the National Research Council.

In a world of imperfect people, the study estimated that well-designed public policy to spur change could result in a drop of 120 million tons in energy use.

Financial incentives were viewed as helpful, but social influences — what your neighbors do — also mattered.

"This isn't just some pie- in-the-sky thing, hoping people will do the right thing," Gilligan said. "Part of what's so appealing about these behavior changes is that we can do them right now and we can do them cheaply."

Additional research will help provide needed details to design an effective public policy, Gilligan said.

What researchers do know is that burning fossil fuels for energy, including coal, natural gas and oil, is the major source of carbon and other greenhouse gases that humans add daily to the atmosphere. Coal emits the most carbon when burned, and, in Tennessee, about 60 percent of the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. On top of that, Tennessee consumes more residential electricity per person than any other state except Alabama, according to the most recent Department of Energy information.

Gasoline and other fuels that power vehicles are also among the large sources of emissions.

Bills and flare-ups drop

The Williamses took action to bump up the energy efficiency of their 110-year-old home because their utility bills were too high, the house was drafty and their two children had asthma.

"We didn't expect as big an effect as we got," said Amy Williams, a nurse practitioner.

The utility bills dropped about 25 percent, and her children's asthma flare-ups have dramatically dropped. She figures less dust is slipping into the house, especially by cutting the seepage from what had been a dirt crawl space below.

"You could stand here in winter and it was like an air conditioner was blowing in," she said, standing in a doorway inside her home where tall pocket doors slide into the wall.

The couple spent about $3,000 with E3 Innovate of Nashville for a test of the house's tightness and several fixes last January, which would have the most impact for the least amount of money.

That included caulking, adding insulation to the attic and better sealing for the ducts that carry heating and cooling.

They put an additional $2,000 into laying laminate plastic over the dirt crawl space under their home and insulating the crawlspace walls.

Erik Daugherty, who founded E3 Innovate, said low-hanging fruit is everywhere when it comes to energy efficiency. He had worked in Europe as a leader of a bioenergy team on climate change, and said he realized that basic work was needed on the ground at homes.

Hybrid cars and solar panels are great for those with the income, but less costly steps are attainable and effective, he said.

"Why would you worry about getting a 50 mpg car when your house is a 5 mpg house?" he said.

Church saves on energy

First Presbyterian Church of Franklin found that low-hanging fruit was not always that easy to pick.

People weren't turning off lights or cutting back thermostats, and some mysterious mechanical glitch in the church's supposedly efficient heating and air conditioning system plagued their efforts to conserve for more than 10 years.

"We were opening the doors and throwing $100 bills out," said Jim Mahurin, co-chair of the 35,000-square-foot church's facility management committee.

Adding compact fluorescent light bulbs along with persuading staff and members to turn off lights made a difference.

Numbers helped people understand the situation. Mahurin would say that leaving the air conditioner or the heat running and lights on in one of the church's 38 rooms could cost $10-$15 an hour.

Once that message took hold, along with installing programmable thermostats and finally ferreting out the climate control system's design flaw, utility bills dropped by about $30,000 a year, Mahurin said. In environmental terms, the changes result in reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1 million pounds a year.

Even better, lowering the load on the heating and air conditioning system should extend its life by several years for a major cost savings, he said.

Studies are increasing that show energy savings can be found in many measures. It's referred to as silver buckshot, rather than a silver bullet.

"The South has some of the biggest opportunities to squeeze wasted energy out of its economy," said Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech energy-efficiency expert who co-authored two recent studies.

"We should be able to prevent the growth in energy demand over the next 10 to 20 years. We should be able to save at least 1 percent a year and offset projected growth. That means we wouldn't have to build new power plants."


Household energy can be reduced easily — and substantially — through voluntary actions, according to a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some of the easiest things to do that give off the most environmental savings include:

• Home weatherization, including insulating and sealing off drafty areas.
• Regular vehicle maintenance.
• Installing low-flow shower heads.
• Maintaining air-conditioner and heating equipment.
• Purchasing energy-efficient appliances and vehicles — though only when the current ones are ready to be retired.

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