The Green Adventure

Friday, September 22, 2006

Challenge #5: Armchair Activism

Election Season is upon us, so today I'm asking each of you to take an active role in the future of the next generation. We must each be certain that those who we choose to lead us into the coming decade will do so with the knowledge that right now is the time to convert our energy system away from fossil fuels. This Challenge is not optional. You live in a democracy; get off of your butt.

We know from reading Socolow and Pacala's plan (Scientific American, 9/2006), many of the "wedges" that will be required to fix our planetary crisis must be done on a large scale. Thus, though all of our individual censervation behaviors are vital (unless any of you have $3 billon or so to throw into the mix as Richard Branson did this week) your best individual hope for change is to elect leaders with the power and bugetary influence to require and pay for sweeping changes in our energy and environmental policies. The following are examples of some of the large scale changes that must occur for us to halt the global climate crisis:
  • Stop ALL deforestation
  • Drive 2 billion cars on ethanol (or other biofuels)
  • Increase wind power 80-fold to make hydrogen for cars
  • Increase wind power 40-fold to displace coal
  • Increase solar power 700-fold to displace coal
  • Install carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at 800 large coal-fired power plants
  • Increase the fuel economy of 2 billion cars to 60 mpg
  • Limit global population growth by at least 1 billion

These sweeping changes cannot be made without large commitments of funds, regulations limiting carbon emissions (making them cost-prohibitive), global poverty and women's rights initiatives, and business strategies that encourage sustainable business both in large multi-national corporations and with tiny microcapital investments in regions of both vulnerable human populations and vulnerable ecosystems (such as the Amazon forest or in biodiverse African regions.)

As individual US citizens of only moderate financial means to contribute, the only way for us to actually solve this crisis is by electing leaders who will consider global warming every time they make a policy decision and a bugetary decision.

That brings me to Challenge #5... Armchair Activism

In thinking about the best use of my time to work towards solving this problem for Little A and her generation ("Generation Green" has a nice ring to it!), I decided that the best way for all of us to act on a much larger scale than cutting our individual energy usage (though still very important, so no slacking!) was to make truly concious decisions about who we will vote for this November.

It would be nice if you could just vote for me; your work would be done knowing that I've already put in all of the research. But, sorry, it's going to be tougher than that since it's too late for me to run this year... maybe next time.

In order to become an armchair activist there are several steps you will need to take. But, I promise that with internet access and a phone they can almost all be taken from the comfort of your very own armchair.

  1. Get motivated to care about this stuff! If looking at your kids or grandkids doesn't do it, watch this video.
  2. Find out who's running for office in your district at all levels. Sometimes those in local offices can more easily promote real action since the beurocracy is often much smaller. Go to and click on your state to determine everyone who is running for office in your state this year.
  3. If you already support a specific candidate go to their website and read their policy position on Energy and the Environment. What have they done already or plan to do to stop global climate change?
  4. If the candidate you support for other reasons is weak on global climate change: call their office and talk to her/ him, write to her/him, volunteer for her/him in order to get to know them personally so that you can work to change their position, contribute to her/ his campaign but be sure to stay on top of their climate change policies (she or he may be able to hear you better while they are holding your check.)
  5. Vote for the candidate that is most supportive of conversion away from a fossil fuel based economy.
  6. During the non-election season, stay on top of your representative (whether or not you voted for her/him.) To do so, you can sign up for action alerts from leading non-profits who spend a lot of time researching both climate change and the local, national and global bills and strategies that are working to halt the effects of climate change. All you have to do is sign up to receive these alerts and then send surveys from the comfort of your own email inbox. For more effect you can call, write or visit your representative as well. Be the squeaky wheel!

Some organizations with climate change action alerts:

Sierra Club

The Nature Conservancy

Environmental Defense

Environmental Action Blog

The Action Blog

Care 2

Grist Magazine

Co-op America

OK, go for it! And, let me know what your candidates say when you call their offices.

This morning I called Kay Bailey Hutchinson's (one of my senators) office and asked her staffer what her policy is on Energy and the Environment. Sadly, her answer was "What? Oh honey, I have no idea!" SCARY!!! Fortunately on her website, I did read a recent speech that Senator Hutchinson gave to the Congress about US Energy Independence. She did highlight that the US must stop its dependence on foreign oil for the sake of our national security, but unfortunately she emphasized further fossil fuel drilling in the Gulf (damaging fragile Gulf Coast ecosystems) or the Artic National Wildlife Reserve over the 10% of Texas power that is now supplied by wind farms. I applaud her efforts towards diversifying our state and national energy portfolio, but I would strongly press her towards emphasizing renewables over new sources of US based fossil fuels. But, I guess that's tough to do with a check from Big Oil in your hand.

On the other hand, there was no direct phone number listed on Barbara Radnofsky's (Kay's Hutchinson's challenger) website. I did email her about her policy positions, and am glad to see two key things listed on her positions statement on her website: "promote energy conservation and fuel efficiency standards" and "require emissions standards for greenhouse gases." She is also against drilling in ANWR.

Either woman will have a lot of work to do to get the Senate to pass Jim Jeffords' bill S. 3698 (basically to regulate CO2 emissions.) But, I plan to do my part to encourage my Senators to get on board. (Watch out if your're answering John Cornyn's phones this week!) If they don't I may be putting my sign in your yard in 2008. I'll have no choice, Little A's future depends on it!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Challenge #4 Your Home Energy Audit

Today Little A and I embarked on a Green Adventure to the University of Michigan's Energy Fest! Sounds cool, right?!!! Well, actually it was not quite as impressive as your local middle school science fair. Bummer! But, Little A splashed in every available rain puddle and won a water bottle (using her wit and charm), and I talked solar panels with some interns from the U of M Engineering Department and a post doc from the U of M Center for Sustainable Systems. All in all it wore her out enough for a good afternoon nap, allowing me to write this post. :)

According to the Energy Information Association (the official energy statistics from the US government), Residental energy use accounts for a substantial portion of global energy usage. The Industrial sector uses the most, Transportation is a close second, then Residential, then Commercial bringing up the rear. We have started to make a significant dent in our Transportation energy usage with Challenge #1. So, this challenge will focus on cutting our residential energy usage even further (adding to our gains from Challenge #2.) Remember the less energy you use at home the cheaper your renewable (wind and/or solar) home system will be, and the faster the payback period it will give you. Plus, we will be contributing to Wedge #3 ("Cut electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25%") from Socolow and Pacala's plan to "Keep Energy in Check" from the September issue of Scientific American that all of you have read for Challenge #3.

Bringing us to Challenge #4: Your Home Energy Audit!

The Challenge is to cut your home energy usage by 25%!! Right off the bat, you will all win by doing so because your monthly energy bills will be at least 25% less. Green in your pocket! In fact, your bills may be substantially lower since usually energy use is cheaper for a baseline amount used each month, then the rate goes up for the energy that you use above the baseline amount allowed by your utility. For example, if your utility company is Austin Energy (as ours will be in our new home) and you use 500kWh of electricity in a month (during the summer) you will be charged 3.55 cents per kWh, but if you use more than 500kWh in a month you will be charged 7.82 cents per kWh. Ouch! That's more than double the rate! (and ends up as hundreds of $$'s per month in charges.) Doesn't it make sense to try to keep your usage to less than 500kWh per month?

OK, so now you're asking, "How do I know how many kWh's (kilowatt hours) per month I'm using?" That's easy... take a look at your electric bill. It will be right there! Take an average of 1 year or several months (consider seasonal changes in heat/ air conditioning use) and let's take some steps to shave off 25%!

Let's get started...

Here's where we currently are spending our home energy:
  • Heating
  • Air Conditioning
  • Lighting
  • Fans
  • Kitchen Appliances: Refrigerator, Microwave, Oven, Dishwasher, Garbage Disposal
  • "Vampire" Appliances: Cell phone/ blackberry chargers, toasters, coffee makers, alarm clocks, radios, iPod chargers and game boy chargers
  • Laundry Rooms: Washer and Dryer
  • Hot Water Heating
  • Computers, Printers, Modems
  • TV's and other audiovisual equipment

In the average home, lighting takes up about 24% of your energy costs. By now most of you have changed to CFL's and dramatically reduced your lighting cost and greenhouse gas emissions. But, also simply remember to turn off lights when you leave rooms, and open blinds to use more natural light (as long as the increased light doesn't add too much heat to a room that you're trying to air condition.)

Water Heating is another significant energy user. To reduce your water heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions, you have two strategies:

1. Use less hot water:

  • Shorter, cooler, less frequent showers (check out this link to see how much water you are using each time you shower)
  • Wash all clothes in cold water (there are good, biodegradable detergents that can make this option work well)
  • Use hot water only when needed to wash faces, hands, dishes, etc. (usually cold will work ust as well.)

2. Get a Solar Hot Water Heater

  • Solar hot water heaters work in every climate, not just sunny ones.
  • Installing one is one of the most cost effective ways to use solar energy. On average, if you install a solar water heater, your water heating bills should drop 50% to80%. That could go a long way towards reaching the goal of this challenge!
  • To find out how they work and how to calculate your home's cost savings check out the consumer guide published by the US Dept of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Yes, I'm surprised too that we actually have one! :))

3. Control your Heat and AC usage

  • Buy a programmable thermostat and keep it set to 68 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer.
  • Use fans to help lift the hot air out of your rooms in the summer, and in reverse in the winter to push the warm air into your rooms.
  • Close off the vents and doors in rooms that are not in use to prevent your system from cooling them in the summer and heating them in the winter.
  • Use shade screens in the summer to keep the heat from penetrating your windows.
  • In the winter, open shades on south facing windows and keep them clean to allow the heat to penetrate your home during the day and close them at night to trap the heat.
  • Consider how old your system is. Buy an Energy Star system if yours needs to be replaced. For more information on Energy Star systems, tax advantages and rebates, see their website.

4. Maximize your Appliance Efficiency:

5. Computers

Being a SAHM has tied me to my computer more than ever. So, as thankful as I am that I can "talk" to others 24/7, I'm also very aware that my 5 year old desktop is an energy vulture!Fortunately, Energy Star is just beginning to come up with some guidelines to limit the energy that your computer uses when it is in sleep mode. And, processors are getting more and more efficient (though Intel lags behind AMD.)

So, for now here are our options...

  • Get a laptop.
  • Get an Apple iMac (with an Intel Core Duo processor.)
  • If you must have a desktop, shop for computers that use 50W or less at idle, and 125W or less at full load.
  • Choose an LCD monitor rather than a CRT
  • Plug your computer, monitor and printer into a power strip and turn off the power strip each time you turn off the computer. That way you won't waste energy in "sleep" mode and you won't disrupt the settings of your modem, router and VOIP phone.

(Adapted from Chin, M. "Choose an energy efficient computer" in Home Power: The Hands on Journal of Home-Made Power vol 114, Aug/ Sept 2006.)

Ok, so there is a laundry list of energy saving ideas for your home. Please post other ideas in the comments when you find them.

Don't just stand there... start saving energy! Your wallet and your children will thank you!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Challenge Update

The challenges are coming along very nicely... The way that all of you are jumping in to make these important changes really gives me hope for our kids' future!

Challenge #1: The Gas Challenge

In August our top recorded team posted just 39.5 gallons for the month! Way to go Team Valtadoros!

Who can top them in September?! You have 2 more weeks to drive less, or is it time to convert to a biodiesel, hybrid, public transportation or walking lifestyle? Keep up the good work!

Challenge #2: The CFL Challenge

Way to go!!! Lots of you have changed to compact flourescent lighting in your home. You're going cold turkey and changing them all, or you're changing them as others burn out. Keep it up! Remember (according to Jason Trout of "Replacing just one 100-watt bulb with a (just-as-bright) 30-watt compact fluorescent cuts more than 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution. Go for two bulbs and it''s more than a TON!"

Another place that you can log your pledges is at
where a non-profit group is hosting a pledge drive to change America's lighting to CFL's.

And, if any of you still have questions about the lighting quality of CFL's for different indoor or outdoor settings, one of our own has become an expert on which CFL's provide the best ligthing to meet your design needs and preferences. I will forward your questions to him.

Challenge #3: The Understanding Challenge

Many of you have been telling me wonderful stories of inspiration after seeing An Inconvenient Truth (still out in selected theaters if you haven't yet seen it) and reading September's issue of Scientific American (still available at local news stands.)

You have been driving less, more efficiently or giving up driving all together. You're eliminating red meat from your diets, shopping at local farmers markets and even starting to grow some of your own back yard veggies! You are becoming aware of the environmental records and goals of your local elected officials, and are planning to vote for environmentally aware candidates this November. You are investigating regional wind and solar power solutions for your neighborhoods and cities. You are putting solar panels on your roofs and heating your pools and showers with solar hot water heaters. You're trading in "energy leaky" appliances from the 80's and 90's for efficient Energy Star appliances. You now understand that when you throw something "away" it doesn't really go away it just pollutes your local land and water supply. So, you are recycling your trash, buying recycled goods and avoiding disposable things and packaging as often as possible. You're fighting for the forests we have left by planting trees and demanding the use of sustainable forestry practices when you buy paper, furniture and building supplies. And, the list grows each day!

Every day I am encouraged by the stories that you send me about all of the things you are doing in your lives to live more sustainably so that we don't rob our children of the healthy, prosperous future that we want to give to them. Keep the stories coming; your stories give me hope and ideas to spread.

Coming soon... Challenge #4

Change is good! Join the adventure!