The question is: what can we do to be more in harmony with the environment? The answers we present here are intended to be practical, but they rely on assumptions about what we consider to be ‘green’. We want to recommend practices that will have a positive effect, but do not really affect our quality of life in a negative way. Most of us want to live in a technologically advancing society that learns to integrate meaningfully with nature. We want to minimize our energy and material use while maximizing our benefit. The solutions presented here are those that we find most practical to implement, and likely to make a real difference.
Personal energy conservation
The ideas in this section are intended to help you reduce your energy use while maintaining a comfortable standard of living. Depending on your convictions, you may wish to take things further than what we mention here.
Turn off things you aren’t using
This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how easy it is to slip up in this area. Sometimes it is hard to notice that you have left lights on. If you have devices that are only used now and then (such as printers), which can be fired up in a short amount of time, have them off until you need them. Other big energy users are hot tubs and deep fryers. It is sometimes easy to forget that you have fans, humidifiers, or dehumidifiers running as well.
Computer sleep mode
If you own a computer, try to set up your computer so that it sleeps after a certain amount of idle time. This means that if you are not using your computer, it will power down into a state where it uses almost no electricity after a period of time that you set. Most people generally set it for 20 minutes or longer since sometimes you have to get up and go do something else for a few minutes while using a computer. The computer can be ‘woken up’ generally by hitting the space bar, power button, or a mouse key. There is a power management control panel in most operating systems that allows you to control when the monitor turns off and the computer sleeps, etc. We suggest that you use these tools to minimize the power that your computer uses when you are not working with it directly.
If you are a person who leaves their computer on all night downloading, keep in mind that many downloading programs can be set up to sleep the computer once they are finished their current downloads. The advantage that sleep mode has over turning off your computer is that it is generally a lot faster for a computer to come back from sleep mode than it is for the same computer to turn on and boot up. Modern computers should only take seconds to come out of sleep mode.
Cold weather: Keep your heat!
When it is cold out, it take a lot of energy to heat homes and buildings. We can reduce the amount of energy that we consume by setting the thermostat at a lower temperature. If you can handle temperatures in the teens (Celsius), go for it. You can always wear warmer clothes to compensate.
People will often put plastic wrapping over their windows during the winter. This helps insulate the air movement near the window, slightly decreasing the flow of heat out of the house. A related concept is to only use one door if your house has several, and insulate the other door with plastic wrap (or some other insulator) as well. Window blinds can also be slightly insulating if they are closed over a window. Window blinds should be certainly open during bright parts of the day during winter. This is so that they let in as much direct sunlight as possible.
Pile snow against your house. In extremely cold weather, piles of snow up against your house can provide additional insulation against the cold. If you think about it, the air outside might be -40 degrees, but the snow piled up against the house could be warmer depending on how well insulated it is, and how much heat your house leaks. Snow has to stay below 0ºC, or it starts to melt. If snow is melting against your house even in very cold weather, the insulation in your walls may be seriously inadequate. In the spring time, you may have to shovel snow away from your house to avoid it melting and excessively soaking the ground by your house. Lots of melting snow (rapidly turning into water) right by your house can exacerbate any possible basement flooding problems you might have.
Put bookshelves and other things against the walls of your house, especially in ‘cold spots’. Humans in contact with cold spots are uncomfortable, but books and other inanimate objects generally don’t care very much. They can also provide a slight amount of insulating value, especially if you can cover a lot of your walls with them. Anyone familiar with the medieval era might know that people have been using tapestries and similar heavy wall hangings as partial insulation for a long time1 . If you have big canvases or other wall hangings that you wouldn’t be ashamed of hanging around your house, use them. Some of my friends and I picked up a large number of canvas maps for free from a local geography department a couple years ago. Hanging them up around our house in theory helped a little bit with our insulation. We also liked having different geography of the world evident in every room.
If you live in very cold climates, you can easily store food outside rather than in your freezer. Make sure that the temperature is far below zero before attempting this. You don’t want your items getting warmer than about -10ºC (+14ºF). Having your freezer off for months at a time can save a lot of energy and money. You may have to carefully guard against freezer burn since the conditions will be changing outside a lot more rapidly than they change in a freezer.
Using an already existing fridge, it is possible to keep it cold using ice that you have frozen outside. This is a similar technique to what was used many times in history for saving and using cold. What you do is take some water outside in a container that will not spill with the water still liquid. You let it freeze, and then bring it in and put it in your fridge. Your fridge will then run less often. Some people even disconnect their fridge when they have mastered this technique (essentially turning their fridge into a icebox). It may be hard to regulate the temperature to between the recommended temperatures of 3ºC (37ºF) and 7ºC (46.6ºF). You would probably want to invest in a thermometer to keep an eye on how warm it is in there.
Warm weather: Keep your cool!
It is generally much cooler (even cold) at night in places that have very hot days. Open windows and let air move into and throughout your home during the night. Close them when it starts to warm up in the morning.
Managing windows and blinds in the summer can help keep a home cool. Blinds should be kept closed during the bright part of the day in hot times of the year. This reflects some of the sun’s rays back out the window, and traps much of the remaining heat between the blinds and the window. The heat then does not spread to the rest of the home as effectively.
Wear shorts (and other light leggings) and light shirts (or other tops) rather than warmer options for either. The difference in your perception of the temperature of your rooms can be very large with such a choice. Some fabrics naturally insulate while some ‘breathe’ well. Keep yourself cool with intelligent choices of clothes.
If you have a basement, use it. Basements are usually much cooler during the hot season than the rest of a house. Heat tends to rise, and the ground is typically rather cool at the depth of a basement. Setting up a bedroom or office in your basement may make sense. Make sure the basement is correctly finished, or at least make sure there are no threats of radon poisoning.
For those that don’t have air conditioning, or are being stubborn about using it (for whatever reason), there are more things that you can do in case it gets really hot. One of these is to soak your hair with a bit of water. Additionally you can soak some water into your clothes. This is assuming that these clothes won’t be damaged by such an action, and that you looking sodden is not a problem for whatever tasks you undertake during this time. The water will evaporate, acting like sweat in that it cools your body down. Instead of your body having to expend the energy and water to cool itself, the water that is held in your hair and clothes can do most of it instead.
Some inventive things could be done with thermal mass as well. If it gets cold out during the nights, you could move something with a lot of thermal mass out there to absorb some cold. Thermal mass basically means an object that has a large resistance to changes in temperature. Water, for a common and cheap material, is extremely resistant to changes in temperature and thus can be used as an effective thermal mass. This means that it takes a lot of energy to change the temperature of water by one degree compared to other materials. By cooling off a thermal mass outside, you are ‘storing’ the cold. In the morning, bring the thermal mass inside before it can warm up in the sun. If the thermal mass is large enough, it can help keep the house relatively cool. This same concept is applied in annualized geo-solar construction, which is an excellent topic for further reading if you are so inclined. This is also similar in concept to the makeshift fridge given above.
Programmable thermostats can control the temperature of your home according to what time of day it is, and even what day of the week it is. You can therefore make certain that your house is set at your temperature preferences when you are there. You can tell it to expend minimal energy while you are gone (such as for most of the workday for most people, or during trips). We say minimal energy because letting a house freeze completely is generally a really bad idea.
You can have the thermostat set up so that a few hours before you awake in the morning, or before you get home from work, it will turn on and make sure the temperature is reasonable for when you need it.
Get a block heater timer
This is a tip for those of us who live in places that get extremely cold during the winter. In almost all of Canada, and in other places with cold winters, it can get so cold that many vehicles have a great deal of trouble starting. A block heater warms the engine block of a car or truck so that it can be effectively started. Block heaters consume between 700W and 1500W depending on the size. This is a lot of power! Many entire homes in our province consume less than 700W on average.
Many people leave their block heaters plugged in all night and day, even though they only need their vehicle to start at a specific time of day (such as going to work). A solution to this problem is to invest in a block heater timer. These things are very cheap, usually available for less than $25-30. Here is an example of one being sold at Canadian Tire. If you are wondering how many hours the block heater needs to run in order to warm up the engine sufficiently, a safe bet is four hours2 .
In temperatures below about -20ºC, it can become extremely difficult for engines to start. Sometimes the full four hours will barely be enough to do the trick. In warmer temperatures however, less time would be required. Careful experimentation can lead you to an optimal solution where you minimize power usage while still having a happy working vehicle in the morning. This is by no means a one-size-fits-all technique. Some engines can start just fine in almost any weather, while others might have a lot of trouble with a relatively warm winter temperature like -10ºC.
Replace energy-guzzling light bulbs
Electric lighting is large percentage of the total electricity used by our civilization. Newer designs of light bulbs have vastly improved efficiency compared to the old ones in terms of watts used to create the same amount of light. Compact Flourescent (CFL) bulbs, if correctly used, can last between 8 and 15 times as long as incandescent bulbs3 , and consume 20% to 33% the energy that an incandescent bulb that produces the equivalent amount of light does4 . Correct use involves minimizing the short on/off cycles that the bulb goes through. The bulbs work best if they are turned on and left on for a longer period of time rather than switched on and off quickly.
Fluorescent T12 light fixtures use a lot more power than newer fixtures such as T8s5 . If your home or organization still uses T12s, you should look into moving on to a newer technology. Older T12s are sometimes identifiable by a characteristic buzz or hum. Advancements in lighting technology are continual. The next revolution we are likely to see is that of LED lights, which have some advantages over the lights we currently use.
Upgrade inefficient appliances
Appliances have been steadily improving over the years. A good example can be found with regards to refrigerators, which have been improving for decades6 . It is recommended that you take a careful look at the numbers cited for the energy efficiency of your old appliance as compared to the newer more efficient model. If the savings are worth it to you, go for it. Paying lots of money for a set of new appliances however may not earn you overly many ‘green points’ because you may be wasting a lot of valuable (still functioning) appliances.
The best way to proceed is to try to find a way for your old appliances to be useful, if not to you then to someone else. Perhaps you have friends who could use them. Perhaps you can find someone willing to take them off your hands on classifieds websites like Craigslist or Kijiji. You can also try giving them away on Freecycle (an effort to keep useful things out of landfills). Finding your old appliances a good home may be as easy as taking them to a local Salvation Army or Value Village. Choosing to lead the market by investing in energy efficient devices means that you are likely helping society take steps in the right direction.
Solar ovens let you use direct sunlight to cook things. The construction of these can be fairly easy, a reasonable ‘do it yourself‘ project.
An easy change to make is that you choose more carefully when to clean clothes rather than washing them after only one wearing. Make up some rules for yourself based on how dirty they are, or whether they smell. You may be surprised just how clean your clothes are sometimes even after multiple wearings.
Wash your clothes by hand. For a brief introduction to this topic take a look at this guide at ehow.com. You will likely have to make up some of your own techniques depending on what you have available for soap and tubs as well as what kind of clothes you are trying to wash. Experiment, though we recommend reading up on the fabrics that you are working with so that you don’t ruin them accidentally.
Washing clothes in cold water rather than warm water drastically decreases the energy cost of washing clothes. A number of companies make clothes detergents specifically designed to work well in cold water. However, we have found that ordinary non name-brand detergents also seem to work well in cold water even though they do not claim that as a feature.
Most clothes can be safely air dried in a day or so. Get a drying rack if you don’t have enough space to hang clothes on random furniture, or if you want it to be relatively neat and tidy. Many drying racks can fold down to a tiny volume so they can be easy to store when you are not using them. Clothes lines can also work very well, either indoors or out. Outdoor clothes drying can be vastly more effective than indoor thanks to the wind and sun. It is worth noting that drying clothes indoors will probably raise the humidity of your dwelling noticeably. Perhaps this means that you will not need a humidifier if you currently use one. In dry climates, the evaporation of water in a closed house during summer may cause a noticeable cooling effect while not raising the humidity perceptibly/uncomfortably.
Use unheated and uncooled water
When you can, use water that has not been heated or cooled. The energy required to change the temperature of water is rather substantial. So if you are wetting a rag to wipe a table or counter-top, use the cold water tap. If you are running hot water (even if it is slow to warm up as it comes out), you are using a notable amount of energy and water. For an enlightening TED talk on this subject, see Catherine Mohr on building green.
Shower rather than bath
Showering generally uses less water than bathing. If the water is hot, this means a lot less energy to take a shower than to take a bath. Low-flow shower heads are designed to use very little water. Some people find them to be too low pressure for their showering needs. Adjustable shower heads exist that let you pick the best balance for you.
Solar hot water heating
It is possible to use the light from the sun to heat water for use in a building. This is the same hot water we use for showers, baths, dishes, cleaning clothes, etc. These systems can be very cost-effective. They are usually an excellent investment in terms of bang-for-buck. As far as we are aware, most systems require that your water be centrally heated. That is, you must have a hot water tank somewhere in your home/building in which water is heated. If your hot water is electrically heated right at the faucet, then you are less likely to have a hot water tank in your building, meaning that solar hot water heating may be harder to set up in an efficient manner where you are. If you want to start shopping around for a possible system, try Google. For a more detailed look at what the options are, we recommend looking through the Wikipedia article on solar hot water heating.
The hierarchy of how ‘green’ transportation methods are is something like the following7 . The top is the most green and the bottom is the least:
- Railroad, rail transit
- Road transit such as buses
- Hybrid car
- Normal car
It is important to note that a single long airplane flight can produce a tremendous amount of C028 People who want to truly live green must attempt to avoid flying in current airplanes.
Eating local usually means less energy has been used to grow the food. Transportation is a large part of the energy that we need in order to get food to our tables. In some cases however, growing plants in areas of the world where they do not grow naturally will require additional fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and possibly a greenhouse. In these cases the energy gained by not having to transport far may not be larger than the additional energy spent on making the plants grow where they don’t usually grow. If you are living in Phoenix, Arizona for instance, locavorism may not be the best idea.
Try to eat more plants. When crops are eaten by livestock and converted into meat that we then consume, we are losing about 90% of the original energy of the crops9 . We ‘get’ from meat only 10% of the energy that went into creating it. This factor of ten has big consequences for land and water use to feed a meat-eating population. By eating more like a vegetarian you can drastically reduce your impact on the planet, and reduce the energy used to create your diet. Our understanding of the nutrition of vegetarianism is that it is possible to have a complete diet with just plants. The only real issue we are aware of is vitamin B12, which vegetarians can get from dairy products or supplements. Vegans have a bit more of an issue since they don’t indulge in any form of animal products, including dairy. Vegans generally will need to take supplements for vitamin B12.
Some meat can be ‘green’
While animals transfer only 10% or so of the calories they eat to humans, well managed farms do not place feeding animals in competition with feeding humans. For instance, some land cannot sustain intensive modern agriculture, but is capable of supporting grazing animals. This grazing land can be further leveraged by raising complementary animal types together. Chickens can be raised on cow grazing land because they can feed on the maggots that grow in cow dung. There are many such possible synergies, comprising an area of learning known as biodynamic agriculture. These practices are capable of stopping the degradation of marginal land, and even improving it. Using the natural industriousness of animals, farmers can invest in land rather than ‘mining’ its fertility. If you choose to support farming of this kind, it certainly qualifies as green in our books, even though it would involve eating meat.
Build/renovate a house with ‘green’ in mind
It is possible to build a house or building that requires very minimal energy to heat or cool. Most people do not know about the possibilities for things like annualized geo solar construction. In short, it is possible to use the sun in combination with a small geothermal loop underground and good insulation to almost entirely eliminate the need for external energy such as electricity or natural gas.
Some amazing examples exist of green buildings. Some of our favorites are:
- The Solar Settlement, in Freiburg, Germany. Here is an excellent picture of one of the buildings. These homes are facing south with their windows and sloping roofs to catch as much of the sun’s light as they can. As can be seen in the photo, the roof has extensive solar paneling. These buildings produce several times as much energy as they consume. While buildings like this have an up-front cost that is higher than average buildings their size, each of these does produce thousands of dollars of electricity per year. The energy created by the solar panels is sold back to the grid, earning an income for the owners of the buildings. Additionally, they require almost no heating during the winter, or cooling during the summer. This significantly reduces the money needed to maintain them. Consideration of the full life-cycle of buildings like these quite is quite often favorable. That is, it can be cheaper in the long run to build a very ‘green’ house despite the fact that they usually carry a higher price tag. A number of other buildings have been designed by the same architectural group, you can find more about them by reading about PlusEnergy.
- The Rocky Mountain Institute headquarters near Snowmass, Colorado. A building that can heat itself even in -40ºC with just sunshine and the heat generated by the humans inside. A very impressive building, especially considering it was built in 1984. If you want to learn more about its construction, see this document about the construction of the RMI. Despite its $500,000 price tag, the RMI was actually cheaper than equally sized buildings of its time. This is an excellent example of careful design yielding very good results.
- The radical contructive concepts implemented in the ‘Earthships‘ constructed in New Mexico may give you some insight into the savings possible through greener construction. Using primarily recycled materials and earth, these buildings drastically reduce their energy use and represent and hands on, radical re-imagination of the home building process.
To be ‘green’, a construction project generally has the following qualities:
- Energy efficient, meaning low electricity usage and low heating requirements.
- Healthy to reside in, meaning that the use of chemicals that can make humans ill are minimized as much as possible.
- Built from locally sourced and processed materials to minimize the energy used in transportation.
- Involves waste-management systems such as grey water recycling, composting toilets, and vermicomposting.
- Minimal impact on the local environment from material sourcing, construction, and operation.
To accomplish these goals, what is often required is a rethinking of what we consider to be a building. The best examples of green construction manage to meet these criteria without being more expensive than a business-as-usual house. As more buildings are constructed around the world with these goals in mind, our housing industries are learning how to accomplish them more cost-effectively. As such, it is now possible to build a LEED certified house, or (even more ambitious) a Passivhaus, for only a few percent cost increase over normal buildings on average.
These technologies are beginning to really take off though, as commercial building owners realize, among other things, how happy and productive the workers in these buildings tend to be compared to the average. What may end up sealing the deal economically for commercial projects is this productivity difference along with the competitive price.
Pay for ‘green power’
Some power providers give you the option of voluntarily paying more for energy from renewable sources. Generally this comes at a slight premium compared to other forms of power. For example, SaskPower offers the GreenPower option which lets you buy blocks of renewable energy of 100 kilowatt-hours at a time for $2.50 above and beyond the normal Saskatchewan price of 10¢/kwh. This works out to 2.5¢/kwh + 10¢/kwh = 12.5¢/kwh. So in order to support green electricity in Saskatchewan, a person would have to pay a premium of about 25%. This seems reasonable considering direct support such as this has the dual purpose of fiscal support and a ‘vote’ for more green power construction. What we mean by this is that it makes abundantly clear that you support the production of green power.
Similar programs exists in Alberta through various private corporations. Here is a listing of some providers and options in Alberta. If you are interested in whether this sort of program exists in your region, I suggest using Google with the name of your local utility (or utilities) plus the term ‘green power’. Hopefully you can find a way to directly support this development.
Personal power generation
It is possible in most places to set up your own electricity generating system. Depending on where you are and zoning laws, it may not be legal to set up such a system where you are. Additionally it may be very expensive to do anything meaningful. An example of this might be a situation in which your home has low wind speeds and no direct access to sunlight.
Even in decent circumstances, these personal generation systems can be very expensive. Small-scale electrical generators are used extensively for off-grid applications, but they do not compete very well with the large-scale forms of power production. The price of electricity bought from most utility companies is much lower than the cost of producing that electricity using one’s own system.
Incentives do exist however for small-scale power producers. In Saskatchewan for instance there is a program called Net Metering. Under this program people are compensated for power they produce by a reduction in the amount of power they have to pay for by the amount they have produced. Under this program it is possible to overproduce, but you will only be compensated for as much power as you have consumed. That is, the best you can do is keep reducing your power bill until it hits zero. They will not pay you for extra power you generate under this program. Power generate above your usage for the month will be banked, where it can be used to decrease future monthly bills for up to a year10 .
In many places there are much more aggressive subsidies on renewable power generation. For an excellent example, see the microFIT program implemented in Ontario, Canada. With such subsidies in place, it is possible for you to build and operate a small scale power system at a net profit.
Invest in a corporation developing green power
Renewable energy is attracting tremendous global interest currently. There are thousands of companies developing electrical installations all across the globe. If you want to support this technology, invest! Choose carefully of course, investments can do scary things if poorly thought out, or even if particularly unlucky. The best guard against being invested in a flop company is knowing what you are getting into both economically and technologically. Some of the articles in our renewable energy archives might help you get started, but we suggest that you dig more deeply into exactly what the company is planning (as well as their history) before you invest.
If you want to invest locally, you may already be aware of some local initiatives that you can get involved in. If not, check out the local media, using both internet and paper sources need be. With the tremendous development of renewable energy in the world today, you are likely to find something relatively local. Whether or not it meets your criteria for investment is something for you alone to decide.
A related option is to become part of a power co-operative. These exist in many places. If you are near one, look into the possibility of investment there. Similar issues apply to investment in a co-operative or a corporation. Co-operatives conduct business in a way that is similar to a corporation in most regards. The key difference is that they do not generally serve a profit motive. That is, they are designed with other mandates in mind rather than just pure profit. Perhaps the local people and businesses wanted reliable stable power that they could control and this want led them to create a co-operative that they could own which would provide services to their locality.
Co-operatives are more likely to be supporters of sustainable development. Since they are often locally owned and operated, they tend to be more socially conscious than other corporations. They also tend to be well aware of what the local opportunities are, while a bigger corporation might not have such accurate knowledge of local issues. In short, co-operatives in general seem an excellent path to tread with regards to greening the power grid. It is the responsibility of those people who own and manage the co-operatives to make certain that they keep the environment in mind when they design their power solutions.
A ‘crown corporation’ or ‘Crown’ is a term used for corporations that are owned by the people of a country, province, or state, and to some extent managed politically by the government of the area. An example of a crown corporation in Saskatchewan is SaskPower. SaskPower is our public electricity utility, charged with a mandate of providing affordable electricity to support the development of Saskatchewan.
While some green initiatives are possible with a crown corporation, there are some additional restrictions in some cases. In Saskatchewan for instance, we can buy green power, but SaskPower, as of the writing of this article, is currently no longer selling green power (it is sold out)11 . There are also relatively few private firms doing renewable development nearby for us to invest in. We recently proposed a new method of stimulating green energy construction with crown corporations. This proposal involves direct investment from citizens with the hope that perhaps Crowns like SaskPower will offer a program of this sort in the future. As far as we know nothing like this exists yet in Saskatchewan, but it may exist elsewhere. If it does, this may be an excellent way to invest money in green energy.
Put political pressure on your government
The government is intended to function as an extension of the will of the people. This is only true however if the people make it clear what their wishes are. Of course there generally isn’t a consensus among people about what the government should do. It is the responsibility of every citizen to make their voice heard on the issues that they believe require voicing. If a significant percentage of the population is active in demanding change from their government, the government is much more likely to go in the demanded direction.
With regards to green development, there are a large number of issues to push forward in a political sense. You can push these issues by writing letters, going to political events and talking to people, or by voting for the candidates that have reasonable plans in these areas (a rare occurrence in my experience.).
Renewable Energy Development
Rebates or subsidies on construction
Direct subsidies such as rebates on construction prices or public-private partnerships for construction. These reduce the up-front costs that the private corporation would have to face when considering an investment in renewable energy. An example of one of these would be that in Saskatchewan you can get 35% of your costs paid back to you when you buy and install a small renewable energy generator12 .
Feed-in tariffs pay energy producers more money for electricity generated from renewable sources. These policy mechanisms are designed to encourage long-term planning and investment in renewable energy, with guaranteed prices over time scales of decades. For more information on these laws, see our archives for feed-in tariffs.
Carbon taxes, also referred to as a price on carbon emissions. These are generally conducted on a price per ton. A price we have seen recommended is in the $10-40 per ton range. British Columbia has an example of such a carbon tax. Their tax starts low but climbs by $5 per year (per ton of carbon) and eventually gets to $30/ton. The goal of this policy mechanism is to force carbon emitting industries to internalize a portion of the expected damage due to climate change caused by their actions.
Demand management is also known as energy conservation. Instead of producing more power, here we try to reduce our usage. Seeking this goal can lead us to a number of techniques. We will attempt to lay out some of the general areas of interest. All of the following conservation ideas have the intent of maintaining a high standard of living, but with lower energy use.
The following is a list of green actions that can be helped along by intelligent legislation. These are the sort of government expenditures and laws that can help make society less wasteful. If you are interested in personal power saving, see our earlier section on personal power conservation. We have also published an issue of the Renewable Energy Review on the subject of demand side management to help build a renewable power grid.
Some devices require more electricity to do the same job as a more efficient device. We advocate choosing the more efficient devices when you can. There are several standards that exist for these devices. In Canada, we have the federally run EnerGuide program that looks at appliances, buildings, and heating & cooling equipment. Energy Star is an international program that does similar things. Devices are analyzed by these organizations and given a rating. These ratings are pretty reliable. We could base government action on these ratings; such as subsidies for energy efficient devices, or taxes on energy inefficient devices. Either way the goal is to provide incentives to switch to efficient devices.
Devices that save power indirectly
Devices such as these can be handy conservation tools, and should be encouraged through policies such as rebates.
- Timers for various pieces of equipment, such as outdoor timers for block heaters, save power because they allow power to flow to a device only at preset times.
- Power bars (also called multi-plugs and octopuses) can save power because if you turn on and off devices using them, they cut off all power flowing through the devices. All devices demand a little bit of power even when off. This is known as ‘phantom load‘. Plugging in through a power bar, and turning off the power bar can stop phantom load. For instance, a home entertainment system uses power even when it is not on. Some of this power is used to keep the system ready to respond to the remote, but much of it is simply waste. You can place such devices on a power bar and turn the power bar off when you are not using them to make sure that there is no such waste.
- Timers for lights in rooms can save some energy. For instance, in the washroom in a house I lived in recently, the maximum time you could tell the light to stay on was 15 minutes. This was more than enough time to take a shower for instance, as long as you weren’t soaking in there for a really long time. This had the effect of reducing the average shower times that people took, since otherwise the light would automatically turn off while they were in there.
Subsidies for electric cars13 . Electric cars are developing rapidly. Already there are models that can travel hundreds of kilometers on a single charging. Electric cars may be tied into the power grid to provide electricity storage that can help grid operations to be more stable and less costly. This is a concept currently being researched as an addition to future power grids, but as far as we know, this does not yet exist.
Progressive rates for electricity
Implement a progressive rate structure for electricity (or for all fuel) usage, where those that use more will pay more per unit of energy. Like a progressive tax system, a progressive electricity rate charges more for units of electricity purchases above and beyond a certain tier. For instance, a study could be performed by Saskpower to determine the reasonable minimum electricity used by a household in Saskatchewan, as well as the average electricity use. These values could then be used to implement a higher cost of electricity for units purchases beyond the average to discourage excessive use/encourage conservation.
Promote professional energy audits, perhaps through subsidies. These audits, conducted by an expert in the field, can help people learn how to best save energy. This is certainly a direction that industrial and commercial enterprises should be encouraged to go in, since they use the majority of the electricity in most districts.
These audits are easier to perform for residential and commercial customers, as much of the advice overlaps within those fields. Industrially, different industries have some common areas of overlap (lighting, insulation of buildings, etc.) but their specializations make energy optimization a bit more specific to each of them.
Energy audits would be able to consider both electrical and thermal infrastructure. Some places use heating oil or natural gas as their thermal energy source for heating water and buildings. A comprehensive energy audit would include looking at both these systems in concert. This introduces a possible synergy between electricity companies and heating companies.
Retrofitting of buildings
Support retrofitting of buildings, and construction of new buildings using better design and possibly certifications such as LEED or Passivhaus. Provinces could offer property tax breaks for more efficient buildings that meet a standard such as LEED. This could be validated rather easily since these buildings would:
- put less stress on the public infrastructure since they are more energy and water efficient.
- lead to increased productivity and improved health of workers.
- housing value that depreciates more slowly (better resale value).
Supporting upgrades to lighting equipment. Lighting is usually a very significant chunk of the total electricity used by a civilization. See our previous section on lighting for more details on this topic. Advancements in lighting technology are continual. The next revolution we are likely to see is that of LED lights, which are the most efficient light producing sources we have ever been able to mass produce. They are not yet cost effective for household or commercial use, but a great amount of research is being done as a great amount of money will be made by the best designs.
As far as government incentives are concerned, it makes sense to offer rebates to people and companies so that they have an incentive to modernize their lighting systems. A good implementation would be to have the incentive applied at the till when the lights are bought, so that people have an immediate incentive. This is opposed to the practice of having people apply for rebates by mail after they have made their purchase, or offering tax breaks of equal magnitude.
Reduce subsidies for non-renewables
Sometimes subsidies are hidden, such as in the form of an externality that a power source is able to successfully ignore unless they are forced to internalize the problems by a government law or policy. A good example of this is the emissions from coal power plants. Without government forcing them to either deal with the toxicity of their emissions or pay a fine, coal power producers do not have a direct economic incentive to deal with the consequences of their actions. Some of these consequences include human and animal health problems, acid rain, forest death, and crop damage.
Support the upgrade to a smart grid. These grids can price electricity on an hour-to-hour or even a minute-to-minute rate. This means that the cost of electricity that you buy can change throughout the day, depending on how much that electricity is costing to produce. The reason this is important is because peak-matching electricity production is generally a lot more expensive than steady sources. By making the consumers allocate their energy usage according to real prices, they will naturally consume less during peak times (expensive), and a bit more during off-peak times (less expensive). This means a flatter demand throughout the day. That is, electricity consumption will be more steady, which is cheaper and easier for a power grid operator to manage. Additionally, it has been found that people will use less energy if they have an indicator of how much they are using. Real-time pricing can be such an indicator. For more information on time-of-day pricing, see Ontario’s “time of use” rate structure. As of August 20th, 2010, our local utility SaskPower announced that it will be transitioning towards Smart Meters in the next few years, which are an integral part of a smart grid.
Get informed, talk to people
There is a lot to know on this subject, and knowledge can be turned into power. In a real sense it is knowledge that powers our society, and not any particular source of energy.
Inform yourself by reading on the subject and asking people questions. We have some articles on renewable energy that you might find useful for getting started. If you have any questions for us, you are welcome to ask.
Wikipedia is a great resource on renewable power subjects. If you are keen on digging your way towards the truth on a subject, we recommend reading the Wikipedia article as a general overview. Once you have an idea what is going on in general, it is valuable to read the Wiki’s citations, as well as any other sources that you can find on Google for instance. Serious readers will ideally continue on from there, drawing upon scientific and journalistic literature for facts and ideas.
Green Action Groups
Joining a group is a great way to get involved, learn things, and meet people with similar interests. Most areas of the world have many groups of active environmentalists, so finding a local one should not be too much of a problem for most people.
We are familiar with Green Drinks, and have thoroughly enjoyed attending their events. Basically they are a relatively informal group of people interested in living green who meet every month or so. Quite often the attendance is a mixture of green technology professionals, students, activists, and interested laypeople. In short, this can be an ideal crowd to get connected to and learn from in your area. They may also have local knowledge of green events, lobbying campaigns, or other opportunities for greening your life. There are apparently Green Drinks groups in over 700 cities worldwide now, so hopefully you can find one nearby.
The goal of this group is to cut carbon emissions by 10% in the year 2010. On a person-to-person level this reduction is not that difficult, but it is huge when considered on the scale of nations. The group was founded in 2009 by Franny Armstrong, who was the director of the film ‘The Age of Stupid‘. This film is a pretty informative watch for both the activist and the skeptic. This community, as of September 2010 is extremely active and has affiliations that are global in reach. For more information check out the 10:10 global website. A related group is 350.org; they are trying to do their best to stop global C02 parts per million from reaching 350. Both of these efforts are based primarily on stopping global climate change.
No Impact Project
Colin Beavan and his family conducted a year long experiment in attempting to live with absolutely minimal impact on the environment. Their story is quite interesting, and a documentary and book exist to demonstrate that fact. The No Impact Project website is a pretty impressive piece of work. Lots more tips are available if this article didn’t satisfy your curiosity about green energy. Additionally, they hit upon wholly different areas of living green such as food, clothing, health, etc.
This is a group about bicycling (and skateboarding, roller blading, etc). People will meet up in many cities world wide at a certain time on a certain day, and usually travel in a specified route around the city. In Regina, Saskatchewan we had small Critical Mass rides with only 100-200 people generally14 . In other places, there can be many thousands of people at the Critical Mass events. For information on what is going on in this community, see their wiki.
People have different reasons for attending, but overall there is a definite air of demonstration. The attitude I heard most is that we are raising awareness of cycling as a valid form of transportation. We are showing that we can be part of traffic, even in very large numbers. In Regina we took pains to abide by the traffic laws as closely as we could when conducting these events. I would recommend this for many reasons, but the most obvious to me is that it seems that people want to demonstrate how bikes and cars can get along. Abiding by the traffic rules is a good start.
If you are wondering why bicycling belongs in an energy article: transportation accounts for about 30% of our total energy usage15 . Switching over to cycling can help you consume far less total energy as well as becoming healthier in the process.
What do we mean by activist groups? Basically these are people who know what they want to do, and set about doing it regardless of how dirty their hands get in the process. Some of these groups conduct civil disobedience, some go further. We recommend that you be certain that you know what you want to do before you jump into a serious activist role. We believe that having an deep understanding of what is going on in the world is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for activism. Inform yourself deeply about those things that you are passionate about, and then set out to change the status quo. Take care with groups that you affiliate yourself with because it is possible that they do things that you do not believe are right. If you are yearning for an outlet for activism however, do not fret, there are many groups, with many different goals. It is very likely that you will find one or more that fits you. If you don’t, well, we are always looking for help :-). If no groups seem to do what you want to do, don’t be afraid to start your own.
Their name is almost synonymous with environmentalism. One of the biggest and most active green groups in the world, they demand attention. They often take direct action on matters of the environment. Much of their work is well-respected as clear service to humankind and the ecosystem in general. However, some people have accused them of (at times) being short on understanding but long on action. I leave opinions on the quality of their action up to the reader. However, it is important to note that they have been a veritable cornerstone of the environmental movement since the 70s, and as such deserve the notice that they get. You can find out more about Greenpeace at their website.
The Yes Men are a relatively recent cultural phenomena that seems to be rapidly gaining momentum. You can read about some of their past exploits on Wikipedia and about their new projects on their website. I personally find their work to be very interesting, as it often exposes hidden aspects of the nature of some of our largest world organizations. The Yes Men draw upon the activist tactic of Culture Jamming. They are soon to be launching a new wave of projects with their Yes Lab, where people can learn and brainstorm the best ways to conduct activism of this sort.
Activism must leave room for learning
‘Green’ living must be a life of learning and growing. If we ever become too set in our ways, we can easily become part of the problem(s) rather than part of the solution(s). Greening the world is a path that we feel we must walk. Our reasons are our own, but we must share this ever-evolving world with others.
If you ever learn that your energies are best expended pursuing a different goal than your current one, try to be courageous and make the change. Don’t let yourself develop iron-clad habits of thought that preclude you from learning more about the truth of the world.
The fact of the matter is, many activists don’t seem to have a deep understanding of the cause that they champion. It is our opinion that depth of action must be paired with depth of knowledge. We cannot effectively help fix the world unless we understand what it is that we are trying to fix, and how.
- Medieval Times – the Stories Tapestries Tell. MikeAdkins.com [↩]
- Energy Saving Tips. Red River College. [↩]
- Low-Energy Lighting – how to save with CFLs. The National Energy Foundation. [↩]
- Frequently Asked Questions. General Electric Lighting. [↩]
- Fluorescent T8 vs T12 bulbs. eHow. [↩]
- Measured Electricity Savings of Refrigerator Replacement: Case Study and Analysis. Danny S. Parker and Ted C. Stedman. Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). [↩]
- How Low-Carbon Can You Go: The Green TravelRanking. Sightline.org. [↩]
- Carbon footprint calculator. Terrapass. [↩]
- Wikipedia: Trophic Levels: Biomass Transfer Efficiency. [↩]
- Net Metering Program. SaskPower. [↩]
- GreenPower. SaskPower. [↩]
- Net Metering. Saskatchewan Research Council. [↩]
- Big carrot dangled for electric car buyers. The Star.com [↩]
- Video of the first Critical Mass in Regina. Several contributers to Vision of Earth are in this video, making it very nostalgic for us 🙂 [↩]
- International Energy Outlook 2010. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Department of Energy. [↩]