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Green America (Friday, July 18, 2008)

For the past few years, whenever I heard Al Gore's name, all I have been able to think of is the former Vice President's poorly impersonated voice, screaming "Pig Bear Man!" on South Park. While that's good for a laugh, I suppose I should try a little harder to take the Nobel Peace Prize-winner seriously.

To that end, Gore gave a speech [text of speech available here] yesterday, calling on America to largely eliminate our dependence on carbon-based power by 2018. His proposal goes beyond just eliminating our use of foreign oil, but reducing the use of all non-renewable sources, including coal, which accounts for 50% of our energy production, right now.

I don't believe that the government, nor the people of America have the balls to make the proposal a reality in the time frame suggested, but if we can do anything, it will be a massive step in the right direction. We need to invest heavily in solar and wind power. We need investments in plug-in electric vehicles (like the Tesla), and bio-diesel, which can be made at home from waste cooking oil and commercially, on a large scale using algae.

I have collected hundreds of ideas for energy efficient living over the past few years. Six solar panels would provide most of the energy needed by my (terribly inefficient) house, most of the time, and even at today's insanely high price for photovoltaics and assuming that energy costs never increased (which they certainly will), the system would pay for itself in less than fifteen years. Considering the rising cost of grid power, the real break-even point would probably be sooner. But more to the point, the $10,000 invested would be rolled into the value of the home, and the system and the home should last fifty, or a hundred years — far longer than it takes to get a huge return.

Another no-brainer is efficient appliances. There are now high efficiency washers and dryers — in particular, dryers with moisture sensors that automatically shut off when the clothes are dry. No one should by anything without an Energy Star label. For those of you who like gadgets, the Kill-A-Watt can tell you exactly how much power a particular device or appliance is consuming — even when the device is off. How much power does your computer or TV use, when it's not even turned on?

There are many other things that can be done with new construction. One of my favorites is the ground source heat pump, which uses the Earth for heat exchange, rather than the outside air. The greater than difference between the outside temperature and the desired inside temperature, the more energy your heat pump has to use. In the winter, that means a temperature differential of nearly forty degrees, and in the summer of more than twenty degrees. But since just a few feet under ground, the temperature is constant year round, those temperature differentials become just ten degrees year round, for an energy savings of thirty to seventy percent. Considering that heating and cooling account for more than half of your utilities during the year, that's a serious savings.

These sorts of reductions in power consumption mean that those few solar panels are able to provide an even higher percentage of your electricity, to a point that your utility costs be close to zero — and in fact, you might be able to sell power back to the grid (and you know, the power companies are required by federal regulation to buy it from you — your meter spins backwards).

So yeah, we just need to grow some balls and actually do this stuff. Instead of just waiting around for someone else to fix the problem. The more people who do it, the less it will cost at the outset, and the greater our returns will be in the long run.

—Brian (7/18/2008 10:43 AM)
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