We've been slowly reducing our dependence on electricity—slowly in large part because it's so hard to do when we're home all day, making most of our food from scratch, producing and preserving it here on our homestead, and using electric fencing to help protect our livestock. We definitely use more electricity because of those things, and we have a harder time taking some of the shortcuts that are easy for folks who work outside the home. Worse or better, depending upon how one looks at it, our home is all electric, which means our electricity use is high while our oil and natural gas usage are zero.
This past year we've cut our electric usage by at least a third, though we need a few more months before we can really come up with a hard number. I'm hoping for closer to half. The biggest change we made was eliminating our dryer use entirely and switching to cold water washes only. The photo to the left shows the wonderful indoor clothesline my honey made for me to use over the winter, which has been especially useful during the recent spate of cold, cloudy weather.
Honestly, I was amazed at how much electricity that dryer was sucking down! Such a simple change has had major effects, and I really encourage everyone to make the shift. Turning off the dryer is to electricity what eating local organic is to fossil fuels. It's one, simple difference that everyone could make, even those unable to have outside lines. Lehman's has some wonderful non-electric/gas clothes drying options, and even though some are a bit pricey, they offer great ideas for designing something low-tech at home.
We've also been edging back our temperature range, what I was trying to show in the photo of me by the fireplace. Fashion's an interesting thing, and it grows up alongside other changes—in weather, in comfort zones, in cultural beliefs. People used to wear hats and gloves...and layers, a whole lot more layers than we do now. It's amazing how much body heat wearing a hat preserves, and my big prediction is that as temps change and heating costs rise, hats will come back in style with a vengeance. For now, I'm embracing my inner grunge.
We've been keeping the heat set at 60° and the air conditioning set at 78° during the real heat spells. I'd like to continue to push those boundaries, but at the moment, no one in my family is on-board with the idea of going without our central air during the dead of summer. Everyone, however, has been fine with the lower winter temps, especially since Jim installed a new wood-burning stove down in the basement. That stove is far more efficient than our fireplace, and it helps passively heat the whole upstairs as well. Jim plans to install an air-intake downstairs that will enable us to circulate the air efficiently with the heat pump fan when we want to heat the whole house more actively.
Wood, of course, is a mixed blessing. It's a renewable resource, but slowly renewable, and many figures are pretty grim in terms of the current population switching to wood as a viable fuel source. Deforestation and pollution are obvious pitfalls with wood, make no mistake. It does, however, do nicely to take the chill off of rooms and offer a practical solution to heating small spaces.
As with most sustainability solutions, however, it's not a 1:1 trade. We're going to need to relearn sustainable habits rather than simply replacing or changing out less sustainable sources, and that gets back to fashion, architecture, and the redefinition of "comfort" itself. As a culture, we've gotten so used to certain comforts that we've come to feel entitled to them, especially if those around us are still blindly enjoying them, something I'm certainly guilty of myself. It's this sense of entitlement that's going to be so hard to root out.
Solar is certainly one option to reduce dependence on electricity, but it's no panacea. Too often, solar is touted as the solution to all our energy woes, but it's hard to imagine anything that could equal the reckless decadence of cheap oil. Both solar power and wind power offer ways to reduce grid reliance, but to go totally off grid brings a whole host of necessary changes and challenges in terms of reducing energy usage in the first place. A week of cloudy weather might mean little to no hot water—making solar a less viable option in certain areas of world at least until storage capacity improves.
The other drawback to solar is the initial outlay of money required to retrofit a home, putting solar neatly in bed with consumerism. Americans, in particular, come from a culture known for throwing money at problems rather than addressing the underlying causes. So, while I certainly wouldn't write off solar or wind power, I think it's too easy to throw up one's hands and say, "until I get solar, there's nothing I can do." It's too easy to fall into the trap of needing to buy, buy, buy in order to live the simple life—a message that's all around us now, as "simple" becomes the new black in consumer messages.
Truth is that there are loads of things folks can do on the way to solar or wind or other alternatives, and it's these steps and changes that matter most in the long-run viability of alternative energy. Changing the way we think, the way we live, the way we act and interact is possible, and it's possible right now, regardless of who we are or where we are.
Doing more things by hand, relying less on machines, choosing to buy non-electric tools as we purchase or replace, going back to age-old techniques, all of these steps make a difference. Rather than throwing money at the problem, confusing consumerism with sustainability, we're working on making changes one at time as they come up here at our homestead, making energy-efficient choices within the context of our every day life.