Five Easy Steps to Electrical Sustainability

Five Easy Steps to Electrical Sustainability

August 30, 2016 |

How to immediately slash the climate impact of your electricity use, easily and affordably.

Of all the energy used in the USA, roughly 40% goes into the generation of electricity. Our insatiable consumption of electricity is a huge factor in CO2 emissions, but because it’s cheap and clean at the point of use, electricity use is easily ignored as we consider the environmental impact of our lifestyles. Even with the rapid expansion of renewable energy in the past few years, about 7/8 of the power in the US grid is still from non-renewable sources and about 2/3 is from carbon-based sources today. Most of the renewable energy we use is from large scale hydro, which to most people’s thinking is not really sustainable either, so in reality we have about 6% of our energy coming from sustainable renewable sources and less than 1% comes from solar today. Although much is being done by governments and corporations to accelerate our shift to renewable sources of electricity, each of us can individually take steps that will collectively make an immediate and dramatic difference in how quickly the power grid becomes truly sustainable.

Throughout the developed world we’ve been blessed with cheap, easy access to electricity, so it’s easy to feel all is well when it comes to electricity. The fact that it is so affordable and doesn’t belch smoke directly in our faces when we plug in makes it feel more like a friend than a villain. But taller, more distant smokestacks make it no less serious in terms of overall environmental impact. And adding electric vehicles to our transportation system might cut fuel costs and help clean up ground level pollution in some large cities, but until we have a 100% renewable energy grid, we should think of EVs as cars with really long tailpipes, not clean sustainable transportation. The fact is, when it comes to electricity, we easily misjudge our own personal impact, but we also misjudge how easily we can cause positive change.

The key to making a positive difference is just making conscious choices… deciding to be intentional and thoughtful about how we live and what we do, rather than sleepwalking through our energy existence. Some of the highest leverage we can create is by simply taking personal responsibility and choosing to reduce our own impact. This does not need to be complicated, costly or inconvenient either. It’s as simple as following a few broad principles and taking a few intentional steps forward. And as we change our choices about how we use electricity, we also set a positive example that ripples out and influences people around us to change, thereby multiplying our positive impact.

The Four “R” Principles

Four broad principles underlie this easy, affordable path to greater electrical sustainability: 1) Reduce ongoing consumption through energy efficient choices that continually save energy. 2) Reprogram habits to eliminate wasted energy. 3) Replace polluting electrical sources with clean, renewable energy sources. 4) Reproduce impact by influencing other people to do the same things. These principles point out a path to electrical sustainability and many of the specific steps they suggest will also save you money. Even the steps that involve spending a bit of money are not expensive and can easily fit into the tightest of budgets.

Five Easy Steps

Here are five specific steps to consider taking immediately:

1. Lead with LEDs

Our ongoing electrical consumption is like a constantly running faucet, draining away precious resources and quietly causing untold environmental impact that fades into the background of our busy lives. The cleanest, cheapest power available is the power we don’t use, since it has zero emissions and zero cost; each kilowatt hour we save is one less that needs to be generated and paid for. As a bonus, when our electrical demand drops, the generation curtailed is inevitably carbon-based, since it has the highest marginal cost for producing each KWh. This means that as we cut electrical use, we help shift the grid’s balance toward greener energy since an increasing share of the whole energy supply then comes from renewables which offer utilities no economic benefit from curtailment. Choosing energy saving lighting, devices and appliances makes economic and environmental sense, allowing us to make a single good decision at the moment of purchase, while yielding years of benefits with no further thought, effort or expense.

Lighting is one of the largest categories of electricity use but today lighting’s load is easily shrunk by 70-90%, simply by replacing old incandescent bulbs with efficient, long-lasting LEDs. Even compact fluorescent bulbs are worth replacing for 35-50% savings. There is no need to sacrifice light intensity or quality with LEDs and in many cases there can be improvements in esthetics, since some LED products provide different intensities and color spectra according to your needs. The energy savings of LEDs are so great that in many cases, energy savings pay for the cost of bulb replacement in less than a year. And the savings continue for many, many years since LEDs can have 10-20X longer lives than the bulbs they replace.

But don’t just stop at LEDs. Every time you purchase a new appliance or electronic device, choose an Energy Star version that will automatically yield energy savings day after day, year after year. In the case of some appliances like refrigerators, efficiencies have improved so much in recent years that the energy savings of replacement can repay the cost of a new unit within just a couple years. In addition, some utilities also offer rebates associated with the disposal of energy wasting appliances or the purchase of new energy saving ones. The bottom line is that if you think hard about energy consumption when you purchase things you plug in, you can automatically reduce your impact (and save money) for years to come.

2. Make a switch

An even simpler way to use less electricity that requires no financial investment whatsoever, is simply switching things off, especially when they are not in use. This means turning off the lights when you walk out of a room. It means not leaving the TV or computer screen glowing when there’s nobody looking at it. The challenge in “making a switch” is it requires a higher level of mindfulness and intentionality. The good news is that once you reprogram your mind to save power that would otherwise just be wasted, the habit runs in the background and this practice doesn’t weigh you down.

The beauty of the decision to make a switch is it costs nothing to begin and provides maximum benefit, since nothing is lost by saving energy that would otherwise be wasted. And the environmental and economic benefits are off the charts, since the savings are 100% every time it’s tried! Once again, the cleanest and cheapest electricity is the electricity we don’t need to produce. And just like with energy saving appliances, these savings directly shift the grid toward a higher percentage of renewable energy sources.

If you want to take this switch a step further, you can now get inexpensive and highly functional presence detecting switches to replace standard manual light switches, automatically turning lights on and off as people come and go. This is a good option for locations where lighting is needed when anyone is present but unneeded when the space is unoccupied. Although there’s a cost in making this replacement, there is zero training or behavior modification involved, which makes this choice ideal for offices and some other workplaces.

3. Kill the vampires

For real hardcore switchers, there’s an even higher level of saving available that comes mainly at the cost of a bit more effort and intentionality. Many electronics like computers, TVs, game consoles, stereos, some appliances and even some lighting products have what are known as “vampire loads”. These are low-level power demands that continuously suck just a little power while the culprit device is in a “standby mode”, which to the casual users looks identical to “off”. Usually, this means that the device’s electronic brains are powered up and operating, even while the main power consuming circuits are turned off. Often these devices will have some low-power LEDs that continuously glow, showing you they are in standby. The main benefit of this standby condition is that the device can be turned on and instantly function, rather than requiring a few moments to “boot up” its brain.

The problem is that these vampire loads are continuous, always present regardless of the device’s use activity. Even when they seem to be off, they’re really still on. A whole house full of these devices can consume hundreds of watts every hour of every day, which can add up to lots of kilowatt hours quickly. The way to kill these vampires is simply to cut off the power they thirstily suck. This means either unplugging the device from the wall, or switching off the plug strip it is plugged into.

Killing vampires is more trouble than some people want to go to, but the potential benefit of curtailing them is substantial. Studies have shown vampire loads to consume roughly 5-7% of all residential electricity, virtually all of which could be avoided. Just like the other ways of directly saving electricity, curtailed vampire loads help shift the grid to a higher percentage of renewable energy.

4. Reset your comfort zone

A huge share of the electricity we use goes into making our environment comfortable in terms of temperature and humidity, especially in the summertime when air conditioning is the standard solution for making our living spaces feel livable. Wintertime consumes far less electricity but then we burn fossil fuels to add heat to our living spaces. The problem is that all this artificial “climate control” is a huge contributor to our climate concerns of a global scale – about 40% of human-caused CO2 emissions are attributable to our buildings. While it’s possible for us to retrofit and renovate energy reductions into our built spaces (and we should do this when we can), behavioral and cultural factors are equally powerful for energy savings and they can be deployed without a budget or project manager.

Think about it — you could walk outside on a lovely fall or spring day and say the weather is “perfect,” even if it’s as cool as 65 or as warm as 80 degrees. Yet many of us would consider our home or office unacceptably “chilly” at 65 degrees or insanely “hot” if the temperature is 80. And how many times have you needed a sweater in the summertime because an air conditioner makes it feel like winter in July? The fact is, our sense of “just right” for temperature is a question of the season, our outlook and our willingness to adapt our behavior instead of the thermostat setting. Instead of setting our thermostats for ideal comfort, we can set them for ideal energy savings and then adjust our behavior to make ourselves comfortable.

This means going back to some “old fashioned” solutions like sweaters, fans, open windows, etc. It also means adjusting our mindset from one of perfect comfort to one of acceptable comfort, setting our thermostats a bit warmer for summer and a bit cooler for winter. Rather than seeing your personal comfort as the key (or sole) criteria for a thermostat setting, reset your thinking to see comfortable in a much broader range. By adjusting expectations, clothing and behavior as much as the thermostat, we can substantially cut our energy consumption (and resultant CO2 emissions) without breaking a sweat.

5. Choose to use renewable

Renewable energy is a wonderful thing. It gives us all the convenience and advantages of a modern lifestyle without the emissions (or sense of guilt) that come with traditional energy sources. Everything still works just like before, but now we can feel really good while we enjoy our lifestyles. The problem is that as consumers, we often have limited choice as to the energy sources our utility supplies us with. Even when we’re paying the bill, renewable energy is often only allowed in fixed allocations or with specific tariff structures and its availability is determined by local programs and regulations. The key thing is to become as intentional as possible in choosing our sources of your energy, just like we might choose fair trade coffee or organic produce whenever we can get it. The more we actually demand and choose our preferred energy sources, the more those sources will prevail in the marketplace.

If your utility offers a “green power” program, you should consider signing up. Typically these programs only cost a modest additional percentage and they serve as a “vote” for renewable energy by helping support the facilities that produce it, whether a wind farm, a solar field or some other renewable source. These programs don’t alter the energy that is delivered (since a “renewable electron” is itself identical to any other electron) but they do help pay the suppliers of renewable energy for their production (which is typically much more capital intensive than non-renewable sources) and they allow you to claim use of renewable sources. These programs run on renewable energy “credits” known as Renewable Energy Certificates, which are legal instruments allowing the attribution of specific renewable energy production against specific consumption. This is the way that big companies like Whole Foods have been able to (legitimately) claim to run on renewable energy, even without necessarily having solar panels or wind turbines on their roofs.

On a smaller and more personal scale, SunPort is a way to use pure solar energy based on the same principle. SunPort allows anyone to plug into any outlet and use solar energy without owning a single solar panel. The company acquires rights to solar being fed into the power grid and matches it to electricity coming from any outlet where the SunPort is plugged in. This way, whoever is using the SunPort is demanding and consuming solar energy, regardless of where they plug in or who pays the power bill. This means you can use solar energy at school, at work, at a client’s office, at the coffee shop, at the airport, at a hotel or anywhere else you might choose to plug in. SunPort is very affordable and it works anywhere served by the North American power grid, regardless of the local utility and their stance on renewable energy.

Beginning the Change

These five steps will really help make a difference. Most will save you money and none will cost you much. None involve much hassle or discomfort and all the new behaviors they require can become habits you do without thinking, once you adopt them as your normal behaviors. The key is to be intentional and just get started reducing, reprogramming and replacing your way to a more sustainable lifestyle with these five steps.

But don’t forget the fourth “R” principle either: Reproducing. Although climate change is a huge issue and feels overwhelming, if we all make good choices, they will collectively add up to major impact. But we must make sure everyone else joins in, so we need to show others what we’re doing. No single person, company or country will make the difference on their own. So don’t just quietly do your part. Yes, do your part, but talk it up. Share it on social media. Speak with your neighbors. Write about it. Show others how they can join in.

If we all pull together, together we will make a difference.