Solar

Will Somebody Make Energy Efficiency Sexy, Please!

A recent Business Week cover story, Little Green Lies, recounts the reality of getting corporations to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to global warming. Auden Schendler, a handsome, passionate acolyte of Amory Lovins, was hired as the sustainability director for a large Aspen, CO, ski resort which had made high profile commitments to reduce its carbon footprint. What he found was that it was difficult to divert corporate resources even to that most fundamental and cost effective of energy saving investments — compact fluorescent lighting.

I am both the Auden Schendler and the corporate hierarchy at my house. Over the past year I have persuaded myself to invest about $10,000 to use energy more efficiently, despite a puny utility bill that offered little opportunity for a rational return on investment. That’s my Auden side. The corporate side is growing leery of further investment. Here’s why.

My highest utility bill for the period was $269 in July last year. That was mainly cooling in central California, so almost all of it was electricity. But this was atypical because my house was occupied by two English school teachers (while my wife and I were in their home in Yorkshire) who probably kept the unfamiliar air conditioning on 24 hours.

By the following July I had cut by electricity use 45% from this artificial peak. But using the previous months as benchmarks probably tells a truer story: 25% cut, worth $58 for a month. For natural gas a 50% during the non-heating system. But the savings came to just $1.30 a month.

These are paltry sums with which to amortize the following investments:

 

Honeycomb double cell insulating blinds

$1900

Solar attic fan

$933

Retractable awning for two west-facing windows

 $1100

Gas fireplace insert

$3000

Tankless water heater

$2800

Compact fluorescent light bulbs

$75

Following my wife around turning

off lights while mumbling I’m not made of money

$0

 

It will be obvious which investments will pay off from energy saving. But then people install awnings and window shades for looks and privacy without considering energy savings at all. The solar-powered attic fan on my roof is silently exhausting the hot air out of my attic during the day, though I already have good insulation up there. The cost of changing out all the incandescents in my house could have been much more had it not been for Pacific Gas & Electric’s subsidy program which makes compact flourescents cheap and sometimes free around here.

I was starting with a fairly efficient home that met California’s old Title 24 efficiency code, before they were recently strengthened. Moreover, I have along the way upgraded to Energy Star appliances: fridge, washer-dryer, and dishwasher. I had already added a whole house fan as an option when the house was being built. In a climate where there is a big differential between summertime day and night temperatures, you can turn off your air conditioning in the early evening if you have a whole house fan. It sucks out the hot air and brings in the cool. A few new houses in this area have systems which do this automatically without the need to run around opening windows. Downside: mine is noisy. But you don’t want to run them all night and you don’t need to.

Of course I wanted the glamor and the status of photovoltaic panels on my roof. But when I got the bid, my corporate side prevailed. The most realistic bid I got was for a 1.5 kW system, eight SunPower modules for $15,000, or $11,500 after utility rebate and tax credit. Annual power savings were estimated at $523. Other bids were as high as $30,000.

Even the $523 was probably optimistic, but I was seriously considering it until the installer mentioned I’d have to cut down my maple tree to avoid shading the collectors later. But that tree, which shades the sun-absorbing west of my house, will itself produce energy savings on top of its carbon absorption and aesthetic returns. No sale.

As for natural gas, this is been until recently a trivial household expense. My gas bills for the last two heating seasons (Jan. and Feb. 06 and 07) averaged about $135 a month. Most of this is space heating; so I checked into replacing my central heating/cooling system with one more efficient. This would impact both gas and electricity costs. I started with a low cost $150 check up, including a pressure test for leakage in the duct system. All was fine.

Bids to replace the system with something more efficient and better performing ran around $11,000, after utility rebate. Newer systems could increase the efficiency rating for my cooling (called SEER, Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) from 13 to 19. And some would offer more comfort due to variable speed blowers that gradually raise and lower hot or cool air output, instead just turning it on or off. Anyway, the cooling capacity which the builder installed does not cool my upstairs below the mid 80s on one of our 100 plus degree summer days. I could get more cooling with less energy with something newer. But most days it’s fine, and what’s available is basically the same old technology. A friend who works on cooling and heating technology at UC Davis told me something more radical will be coming along soon. I decided to wait.

I put $2800 into a central tankless water heater, replacing my still operating tank heater which could have been replaced for $500 to $1000 installed. The tankless heater, which is more efficient because it only heats water when you turn on the faucet, is exotic in this country even though it is common place everywhere else in the world. Thus, my heater is a Noritz, made in Japan. Apparently the tankless heater has cut my natural gas usage 50% outside of the heating season.

It cost another $3000 to put in a gas fireplace insert with fake logs. These are more efficient because they prevent heat from going up your chimney instead of into your living space. You can use wood or pellets in some of these inserts, but I prefer natural gas without the periodic clean up. With what we have the nerve to call our heating season coming up, I’m hoping I won’t have to use the upstairs zone of my central forced air system.

Mind you, all these costs would be about $1500 less for do-it-yourselfers. I installed the compact fluorescents bulbs myself.

What all this comes down to is not that it costs too much to save energy. There is still a vast amount of substandard insulation, leaky weatherstripping and windows, incandescent lighting, and gas guzzling cars out there. (Of course, I drive a Prius.) But, for now, homeowners who go beyond that will have to justify it as their solemn duty to save the planet or reduce the dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

The technology will have to get cheaper and better (and it will); energy prices will have to get higher (and they will), or energy efficiency will have to get as sexy as home entertainment systems with wall-mounted flat high definition monitors and surround sound systems to die for. Well, for some of us, saving energy is that sexy.

Mark Braly was energy advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles during the 70s energy shock, author of the city’s prize-winning energy plan, and president of a State of California non-profit corporation which made loans to renewable energy businesses. Now retired, he is a City of Davis, California, planning commissioner working on the city’s zero-carbon program.