With Xcel Energy raising the cost of electricity for the summer, I dream of putting a solar system on the roof of my home. However, the price of photovoltaics is still outside my family’s budget, so instead I am looking at “the low-hanging fruit” of energy conservation.
I was in junior high during the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, a time when conservation seemed a dismal thing that led to a lot of shivering in itchy sweaters and failed attempts at making solar hot dog cookers.
However, my parents took the energy conservation message to heart when they built their house a couple of years later in the San Luis Valley, a place that gets so cold, a wet shirt would freeze stiff before my mother could get it pinned on the clothesline. My mother hates being cold, and my father hates paying high heating bills, so they planned their custom-built home with 6 inches of insulation in the walls and 12 inches in the ceiling at a time when the standard was 4 and 6 inches. We had a comfortable house and reasonable heating bills.
Twenty years later, when my husband and I moved to Denver, we bought a brick ranch-style home in Littleton. The first winter, I noticed cold emanating from the walls. But we just turned up the thermostat a little higher and everything was comfy.
But then energy costs increased, and we were forced to take a hard look at some energy conservation measures. What sealed the deal was a New Year’s Eve we spent at my parent’s house, when the temperature dipped to 30 below zero. Their exterior walls were warm to the touch. The walls of my house would have been icy.
I soon discovered the reason: Our walls had no insulation in them. When our home was built in the 1950s, natural gas prices were so low that builders didn’t bother to insulate!
When Xcel offered a reduced- priced energy audit, I jumped on it. Jordan Gorrell with Lightly Treading, Inc., came out with an infrared camera and giant blower to assess our house.
A few days later, he sent us a report that listed all the changes we could make, and prioritized them in order of cost efficiency.
It doesn’t have to cost a bundle to increase your energy efficiency. The top priorities for our home were to seal up major air leaks (49 percent of the air in our home was exchanged every hour), put additional insulation in the attic, and insulate our boiler pipes.
To address these issues, we would need to buy some caulk, spray foam, weather stripping and insulation. The cost is well under $2,000, which we can recoup through the energy savings in five to 10 years.
Once I started to look at our home the way the auditor did, I could see why I felt like cold air was coming at me from all sides – because it was. On just a quick walk through the house, I spotted nine major places where cold air streams through: the mailbox slot in the wall, the old dog door we kept in case we ever got a dog, the cracks between the 50-year- old doors and the 50-year-old walls.
Energy conservation is called the low-hanging fruit because the technologies are available now and many of them are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. There is so much potential that energy-efficiency expert Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has said, “I don’t know anyone who has failed to make money at energy efficiency. There’s so much low-hanging fruit, it’s falling off the trees and mushing up around our ankles.”
How much can we reduce carbon emissions? In the November 2009 National Geographic, Peter Miller wrote, “A study by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, estimated that the United States could avoid 1.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions a year, using only existing technologies that would pay for themselves in savings. Instead of growing by more than a billion tons by 2020, annual emissions in the U.S. would drop by 200 million tons a year. We already know, in other words, how to freeze CO2 emissions if we want to.”
Our family’s energy audit shows that we could save more than $400 per year with a few simple, high-priority changes – and that’s before factoring in possible rebates.
Saving money, saving energy, and staying comfortable. That energy conservation idea doesn’t look so dismal after all.This article first appeared in the Denver Post.