Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Electricity

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.

Some resources:
Lehman's Catalog



Christy said...

I'm enjoying your series here. I was much better at drying clothes without the dryer in the summer. I need to set up an inside drying system though. We've set the heat back a lot for us, we are at 67 during the day and 55 at night. We can go back more during the day so I will start pushing it back more. We are at 80 during the summer which I found quite pleasant but Mark found hot. We have a ways to go on the electricity front. I recently got a few electric tools (like a Kitchenaid) to make things I do by hand easier (like kneading bread). I'm still trying to decide what grain mill to get and I'm leaning towards electric because of the ease and speed, but I may reconsider that.

Madeline said...

Inspiring, as usual. I will come back to read this series on sustainability when i am feeling too cold to go hang my clothes outside. It is truly such a small sacrifice. Especially in GA. And I love the more simple Christmas. We are slowly going that way as well; wish it were faster.

We are going to be staying at a solar powered house in the mountains while we are here in AUS. I am excited to see the set up.

Jenny said...

Electricity. Oooh, that's a tough one. We are off grid but we cheat. I've said so before. When we have to run a second freezer because we have just butchered a thousand pound cow we run an extension cord from my FIL's next door. But there is a solution to that as well, and it comes in the form of our shift from large beef cattle to miniature breeds. (Oh, and I've just fallen in love with guinea hogs--anyone know much about them?) That combined with better timing of the butchering and faster moving of meat and we will be able to minimize our use of the second freezer.

We don't own a clothes dryer, and I guarantee that's the fastest way to get used to not having one! I haven't used one for 6 years now.

If you are starting fresh, build a passive solar house. Or install a sunspace on your existing house and beef up the insulation.

In the meantime, I still maintain that the best way to offset your fossil fuel use with solar is to install solar hot water heating. Solar air heating is a close second. Right now this is pretty lame for me to say because we haven't installed our solar hot water yet (we don't need the heating because of our passive solar house) but it's high on our list of priorities.

All that said, I have to agree with Christy that some electric appliances are a godsend. I still don't have my Kitchen Aid mixer but it's on my wish list. I got my Vitamix and I love my toaster. We are now looking for a commercial grade meat slicer. I want a grain mill. But I am hoping to find a belt driven slicer and grain mill that we could hook up to the 5 dollar exercise bike that Chris just picked up at the flea market if necessary. Oh, and the vacuum cleaner! It will be a sad day when I can't use that anymore. But again, here in New Mexico it is fine to use these appliances for short periods on a sunny day.

I need to think more about the consumerism side of this. Because you are right--it's not just what we can buy to substitute for what we are used to. It really does take a shift in expectations. Just now, for example, I realized that I don't need the room light on to use the computer and that if I turn it off I'll be forced to dim the computer screen as well to save my eyes. Two places to save right there.

Keep up the great posts!

Danielle said...

Thanks everyone for the great comments and ideas! Jenny, you're certainly way beyond where we could hope to be, and I always love hearing your input. I know I'll be consulting you lots if/ when I ever get to that long term dream house!

I've looked a bit into solar on a small scale because Jim's just so opposed to it on a large scale, but he's still not buying it. His big hang up is efficiency. *sigh*

I'm going to keep looking into it though and looking for cracks in his armor, as I work to do the smaller stuff around the house.

Christy, I totally agree about some appliances, and I'd be lost without my Kitchen Aid and bread machine. I think there are ways to offset the use of those, particularly when we can save energy in bigger ways. For myself, I know I only have so much time in a day, and some of these labor-saving devices enable us to have fresh home-baked goods rather than store-bought, and I figure that's a net gain right there.

Madeline's pretty much got me convinced that I need to get a Nutrimill . Maybe in the next couple of months.

On another note, the kids and I are planning to build a solar oven this summer, which should be fun. Christy and Logan inspired us!

Christy said...

I'm leaning towards the Nurtimill myself, I just don't know that I can get a fine enough mill with a hand mill. We are going to be building a better, more efficient solar oven soon. I've been talking to Mark about the recommendation to have 90 days worth of supplies in case of a flu pandemic and although he made fun of the idea at first, he has kind of gotten into it lately. It was he that suggested we need a more efficient solar oven to use when we are sheltering in place and all basic systems have gone out because everyone else is sheltering in place too.

Ren said...

I love this post. I kept feeling that sense of hopelessness in the last few year, because I didn't have money to do the big sweeping changes.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks "what can I do right NOW?" and suddenly the responsibility was on me and not on my limited budget.:)

We are planning to hang one clothesline in the garage and one outside. I have a small collapsible rack right now that helps a little bit.

I have a huge garden planned for spring (a bit nervous about that actually...but super excited too) and plans for at least two beehives.

No chickens or goats for this suburban dweller. I'm actually having night-time dreams about my farm now. It's getting harder and harder to not have the land. My heart yearns for it.

First off debt.;)

Danielle said...

Hey Ren!

That's the beauty of living more sustainably—so many of the choices along the way have the added benefit of saving money. We've cut our electric bill nearly in half, which helps a lot.

There are so many possibilities even where you are, though. You guys could definitely have chickens, as long as you don't have any covenants or ordinances preventing it. Of course, reluctant spouses is a whole 'nother can 'o worms.