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Wood costs calculated with 20 million BTU / cord at $125 / cord.

Wood costs calculated with 20 million BTU / cord at $125 / cord.

Two commonly used energy units are the kilowatt-hour (KWH) and the British thermal unit (BTU). Your electric bill is measured in KWH. A 100 watt light bulb lit for 10 hours uses 1 KWH. A BTU, often used for home heating calculations, is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit (3,412 BTU = 1 KWH).

The table shows the average U.S. energy costs for various fuels. This information is from the Department of Energy's book Household Energy Consumption and Expenditures 1993. Look at the average prices in the table. If you currently heat your house with electricity, you could switch to natural gas, fuel oil, or wood, and cut your heating bill by 75 percent! This also applies to electric water heaters, electric stoves and ranges, electric clothes dryers, baseboard heaters, electric bathroom heaters, and portable electric heaters—the list is long.

Efficiency and Pollution

"But wait," you say, "electricity doesn't pollute." Well, that's not exactly true. Utility electric power plants burn a fuel to run a turbine, turn an electric generator, form magnetic fields, and cause electricity to flow in wires. Since converting energy from one form to another is absolutely always an energy losing proposition, electric power plant efficiency is less than 100 percent— actually much less—despite great efforts to improve it.

Our modern power plants are usually able to convert only 40 percent of the fossil fuel energy to electricity! A generating plant using the latest combined cycle technology might, perhaps, convert 60 percent of the energy into electricity. About half of the energy in the fossil fuel a utility plant burns is lost up the stack and into the atmosphere—only to come back as pollution, climate change, and greenhouse gasses.

For example, if you cook on an electric stove, the utility power plant burns fuel to make heat. The heat runs a turbine generator, which produces electricity. The electricity runs through miles of wire to your house and gets turned back into heat to cook your food. Meanwhile, an equivalent amount of energy is permanently lost. Needless to say, you have to pay for all the fuel burned on your behalf, capital investments in power plants and electric transmission lines, employee salaries and health insurance, and utility profit. As a bonus, you get to breathe the resulting polluted air.

Now, if you burned a fuel at home to cook your food, perhaps 90 percent of the energy would actually get used to heat your food, with the remainder heating the kitchen. You would accomplish the same cooking objective, while burning much less fuel and producing far less pollution and heat to be dumped into the atmosphere.

Investing in Efficiency

Using any fuel requires that you buy appliances and equipment that run on that fuel. Usually, the more you invest up front on efficient appliances, the less you will spend down the road on energy and operation. If you're willing to spend quite a bit up front for passive solar home design, wind turbines, solar thermal, or photovoltaic panels, operating fuel costs can be removed completely. These renewable energy options may also be attractive because they don't contribute to pollution.

What to Do

By using the information above and following these recommendations, you can probably cut your energy bills in half:

1. Get in the habit of turning off lights, closing doors, doing full loads of laundry, and hanging out clothes to dry (if possible). Wash full loads of dishes, and minimize the number of times you open the fridge or drive to the store. Changing habits may be difficult, but it's free. Waste not, want not.

2. Change to compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs in the fixtures you use most. This may be one of the easiest ways to cut energy costs and help the environment. Most people are familiar with incandescent light bulbs. Take a look at the packaging—these usually last between 750 and 1,000 hours before they burn out. CFs last about 10,000 hours.

Compact fluorescents provide the same light intensity, but use a scant 25 to 35 percent of the energy of incandescents. Newer models are color balanced and don't flicker, making them much easier to live with. One CF bulb lasts 10 to 13 times longer than a standard incandescent bulb and uses up to 75 percent less energy. The high initial cost of CF bulbs, $15 to $20 each, must be compared to the cost of ten incandescent bulbs and the increased cost of running them.

Compounding Efficiency of Coal to Light

Coal production: 96% efficient

Coal production: 96% efficient

Coal transportation

Coal transportation

Numbers from Wind Energy and Wind Turbines by Dr. Vaughn Nelson

If you live in a climate that requires air conditioning, there's a hidden secondary savings too. Switching to compact fluorescent bulbs means that your lights will dump much less heat into your home that your air conditioner must then remove. CF bulbs usually take a fraction of a second to light, which isn't bothersome once you're used to it. In the end, they are a much better economic investment and environmental deal.

3. If you heat anything with electricity, take the next opportunity to change to a cheaper, more efficient fuel. Electric central heaters, stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, baseboard heaters, electric bathroom heaters, and portable electric heaters should all be on your "hit list." Eliminate them, repower them with an efficient fuel, or use an alternate method.

Natural gas and fuel oil are economical heating choices, if available. Wood has long been used to heat homes, and newer wood stoves are much cleaner and more efficient than in the past. They require much less wood and therefore less work cutting, splitting, lugging, and stoking. Since wood is part of the natural carbon cycle, burning it shouldn't really count as greenhouse gas emissions. Solar home and water heating is a great way to help the environment too, if you can afford the initial investment required and have an adequate solar resource.

4. Insulate and caulk your home to retain as much of your costly warmth (or air conditioning) as possible. Since normal glass windows have very low insulation values, you might consider double glazed energy efficient windows, or sealed storm windows.

Air conditioning is a huge user of electricity in the warmer parts of the U.S. The amount of energy required to keep your home's interior comfortable depends on the insulation and the temperature outside. Improving the insulation and lowering the temperature difference will reduce energy requirements. Since the underground temperature is steady and is not far from what you'd like in your house, a geothermal heat pump may do the job, using much less energy. It might cost more to install, but can be cost effective and environmentally friendly as well.

In a solar heated home, the panels can perform double duty. You can allow circulation through the panels at night, thus collecting the cool of the night to be used during the next afternoon.

In the Southwestern U.S., where the air is dry, evaporative cooling is a good way to keep comfortable at low cost. A big fan draws air through wet jute mats, causing some of the water to evaporate. As the water evaporates, it cools the air, which is then blown into the house. This takes much less energy than central air conditioning, which is actually the same type of system your refrigerator uses, only bigger.

5. Get the best, most efficient appliances you can, whenever you have the opportunity. Refrigeration is a significant part of domestic energy consumption, so you might consider getting the smallest, least gluttonous refrigerator that will meet your needs. Nearly 33 percent of the energy in modern refrigerators goes to little heaters used for automatic defrosting, so you might consider a model without this feature. Also, over the life of an electric motor, the cost of electricity is typically many times the cost of the motor itself. It makes sense to get a more efficient model.

Utility bills must be paid, but information is free. Armed with what you have read, I'm sure you can find other ways to reduce your energy consumption and bills. It isn't as hard as you might think!

Going Further

Find Benjamin Root's article Doing a Load Analysis, HP58, page 38 (also available on the HP Web site), and Michael Lamb's article Phantom Loads, HP55, page 36. Perform a load analysis for your home as described. Measure the energy consumption of each of your appliances. You can use a multimeter to measure their volts and amps, and multiply them together to get watts going to each appliance.

Or, if you prefer, you might purchase a power meter. Check with renewable energy vendors to see what is available and get some solid figures on the energy use of your appliances. List all your appliances from highest to lowest annual energy usage. Start at the top of the list—eliminating, changing, controlling, and conserving.

If your house is initially rather gluttonous and you are willing to be fairly ruthless about decreasing overconsumption, by the time you reach the bottom of the list, you will have probably cut your consumption more than 50 percent. By applying the same load analysis technique to your heating, cooling, and other bills, you may cut them drastically, too.

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Author: Eric Eggleston, Route 2, Box 271, Canyon, TX 79015 • 806-488-2537 • [email protected]

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