Growing up in the 1960s, those of us in the “earth” movement thought solar energy was looming right around the corner. And, we were almost right.
What we didn’t predict was that the government and big corporations were strongly opposed to it, and thus kept it from happening. Big Oil, Gas and Electric called the shots. The result was, and is, that most people are still not harnessing the vast energy that nature has always provided us for free.
When it comes to energy, I often talk about it in relation to the human body, as the most common symptom people experience is fatigue. Thus the discussion here begins with the simple question, where does our energy come from? The answer is the sun. Light energy from the sun reaches the earth and is converted to chemical energy by plants, which are eaten by animals, including us. Our bodies convert the chemical energy to a mechanical form for everyday use. If we’re more tired now than when we were younger, it’s because something has interfered with this process of energy production.
This same solar energy that our body relies on can also be harnessed for other needs as well. These include heating our homes, cooking, producing hot water, and lighting. The mechanism is similar to how the human body uses the sun’s energy. In particular, we can use various types of mechanisms to convert solar energy to heat. Some of these devices – especially the many types of solar panels – are exorbitantly expensive, but others for free. If we disregard the potential of solar energy, it not only costs us money (we pay the utility company), but it uses more of the earth’s limited resources and pollutes the planet.
When we physically abuse the sun, we suffer sunburn. But when we ignore the sun we abuse the planet. Despite the braying of global-warming critics and skeptics who ignore or distort the facts, most people are aware of climate change because they experience, hear or read about it, but often don’t consider how easy it is to change one’s personal energy consumption. That’s what I want to emphasize in this inaugural column.
Not only is the solar-energy alternative still laughed at by many people in the U.S. (not so in Europe, Australia and China), but the natural “sun-powered” movement died out and has been replaced by an industry that created another modern scam: solar energy. There are two sides of this issue, both severely misguided. On the one hand, there are those who believe there’s plenty of energy for electricity in the form of coal (the most common source of power) and nuclear plants. These folks believe that the resulting pollution and other dangers are a non-issue, and it’s okay to continue paying large amounts of money to corporations who produce these forms of energy. On the other side are those who believe the sun can provide us with all the energy we need, which is no doubt true. We got a glimpse of hope in the early 1970s when President Carter put a solar panel on the White House; but one of Ronald Reagan’s first act as the newly elected President several years later was to remove it.
Will You Save on a Home Solar System?
Today, investing in a solar system for a small household could take a cash outlay of $20,000 or more, and take over 20 years to recover the financial costs compared to using standard energy. Yet you still would probably not be off the grid, and continue to rely on the electric company for some of your needs. And that’s the price tag if you don’t run into problems requiring big repairs or replacements. For most people, this cost is prohibitive, and local governments, zoning boards, and your electric company all make it difficult to accomplish. Sure there are often tax breaks on solar equipment – you can save $300 by spending $20,000.
Since most people care more about saving money and less about the environment, let’s look at the reality of the energy issue. There’s an alternative to alternative energy – a better way for everyone to benefit with immediate and significant up front costs savings.
Not only do I care about the environment, but I also enjoy a cool home in the summer, warmth in the cool winter, and a hot shower, to name a few modern luxuries. And I hate giving money to the utility companies.
Part of choosing a healthy lifestyle is finding an optimal location. For most people there are many choices all over the globe. Of these geographical possibilities, Coralee and I settled in the desert mountains of southern Arizona.
We live in a passive solar house. That just means someone thought hard about this before they built the structure. Sufficient southern-exposed windows allow sun to shine in. This provides significant solar heat in winter. In addition to passive solar heating, the windows allow a high level of light inside making added lighting unnecessary until dark, not to mention the added enjoyment of seeing the beautiful outdoor views.
In summer, the slightly longer roof prevents sun from hitting the southern windows, keeping the solar heat from getting trapped indoors. Most homes are constructed with shorter rooflines to reduce building costs, which allows summer sun to heat homes – and causing a dramatic rise in energy cooling costs.
Even though most homes here have central air conditioning, we don’t. Because the Arizona air is dryer, the use of evaporative cooling, which is inexpensive (basically a small fan that blows moist air through ductwork), is a very effective form of cooling, and it adds healthy humidity to the air. This can cut cooling costs at least in half. Using it for a few hours, mainly as afternoon temperatures rise, is all that’s needed.
The winter passive solar effect is so efficient in heating the house that we only use our small wood stove on cold winter mornings when the sun is late in rising – not just for warming but it’s very enjoyable with morning coffee. Likewise, during periods of cloudy, cold weather when solar heat is too little, an evening fire is very romantic. Firewood is plentiful and free, being easily found in the surrounding terrain.
Energy-saving Cooking Tips
Cooking is a major use of energy, but it can cost to cook and to cool from the heat you create. This is good during cold winter days but not the rest of the year. Reducing energy for cooking is simple, and it can save money and time, and provide health benefits. First, consider that if you cooked twice the amount of food at once you’d use a lot less energy than if you cooked half that amount of food on two different occasions. With twice the food, your preparation for meals over the next few days is reduced, saving considerable time. And, with food already made you’re less likely to skip a meal, which is very unhealthy, or eat junk food. Moreover, if you bring lunch to work, it’s already made.
In summer, we use a slow cooker to make many meals, placing this pot in an outside room (or outdoors) so the heat never gets into the house. Slow cookers (aka crock pots) are inexpensive and use little energy unless you keep them on all day, which is unnecessary. You can make just about anything in these pots, from healthy meatloaf to vegetable lasagna, not to mention cheesecake. We also use an outdoor propane cooker all year round for quickly grilling meats and vegetables, fish in parchment paper, and other foods. (We’ve experimenting with simple, inexpensive solar ovens, which can reach 350 degrees F with southern sun exposure as their only energy source.)
In addition, consuming a lot of raw foods with meals and for snacks – especially vegetables and fruits – requires no cooking, and is an important part of a healthy diet.
Driving Fuel Usage
While electricity is our primary energy source (our typical monthly bill is $60), another huge waste is gasoline used by an automobile. We have a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee in almost new condition, a perfect vehicle for our lifestyle. A gas-guzzling SUV you ask? Another part of the “save the planet” scam is the development of so-called “energy-saving” hybrid vehicles by the auto industry, which cost more to buy and many years to make up the cost difference. Sure, I applaud those who must drive everyday and are willing to do their share of energy saving by using these vehicles. But here’s the bottom line: We use much less gasoline than our friends who drive these “alternative” cars. How? We don’t drive much.
Part of the healthy lifestyle we created is working at home (with few exceptions that require travel). But this also involves carefully planning our driving trips – which everyone can do. We hate leaving home so when we do it means sometimes making five to seven shopping stops. In fact, we’re almost down to using the Jeep, our only vehicle, twice monthly. Our trips include visits to a local ranch to buy organic grass-fed beef (for significantly less cost than the health food store), to a farm for raw milk (for $3.50 of milk we can make about $35 worth of cheese that’s tastier and healthier than store bought), and the few things we need from traditional stores (like extra virgin olive oil, avocados and red wine). We also buy many things online, including organic shade-grown coffee roasted to order (which costs a lot less and is much better than anything in the stores) and truly raw organic almonds direct from the farm (both cost about 30% less than the stores, even considering shipping).
Reducing driving this much significantly lowers the cost of owning a vehicle, not just from less fuel but repair and maintenance (and with little yearly mileage, insurance rates remain low). Statistically, it dramatically reduces the risk of an accident.
In the U.S., adults drive an average of 87 minutes each day. While many of these are commuters, only 4% of those commuting to work use public transportation when available and 84% drive to work alone. The use of gasoline is up considerably – 428 gallons per year in the U.S. compared to 59 in Europe. If Americans reduced their driving by an average of only five miles a day, we could eliminate the amount of oil taken from the Gulf of Mexico each year. However, only about 25% of the average American’s car miles are devoted to commuting to work. In fact, the fastest growing use of auto travel is for shopping—and within only a few miles of home.
If there were stores with healthy food within bike-riding distance where we live, we’d choose that option, but there are none. We bike everyday anyway as one of our workouts, and combining it with shopping would be ideal. Some people do this – they buy smaller amounts of groceries a few times a week to make it easy to transport while getting their exercise.
Another indirect use of gasoline is buying food in traditional stores. Growing more of your own food, or buying healthy food locally produced, such as in a farmer’s market, reduces, sometime dramatically, this energy dependency. An organic orchard owner once told me that Whole Foods might pay 12 cents a pound for apples and sell them for $2.99 (or more) a pound. In addition to corporate profits, some of the costs passed on to you are for fuel (transporting the apples in trucks) and storage (keeping the apples for months in distribution centers which requires refrigeration).
Virtually anyone can grow food at home, and in any climate. In our case, we have two sizeable gardens on the east and west sides of the house, growing about 40 different varieties of vegetables and fruits year round (we usually eat 10 servings a day each of plant foods). In addition to superior taste and better nutrition, this provides us with enjoyable physical activity. Once you get the garden properly organized, maintaining it is easy. Our garden saves us hundreds of dollars a month.
Collect Rain—It’s Free!
Whether you use well or city water, a significant source of this natural resource is free – rain. You just need to collect it. We have several rain barrels that gather thousands of gallons of distilled water during our winter and summer “monsoon” seasons, where every inch of rainfall can bring us over 1,000 gallons of water. While some areas in Europe and Australia now require rain harvesting, I was amazed to find out some communities in the U.S. actually forbid it. You can often recoup the cost of a rain barrel in two years. They’re very durable, potable and made of relatively safe hard plastic with a very long life.
One of our 1600-gallon rain barrels covered with Morning Glory vines to protect it from the sun. This barrel is fed by a 1,000 square-foot roof area.
We use rainwater primarily for the gardens, but it provides an emergency source of clean water as well. We also reuse most of our house water. The gray water flows out through irrigation pipes to the western garden (of course, many local governments forbid this).
We have a relatively small gas hot water heater for the house, which stays plenty hot with just the pilot light (on “vacation” mode) and more than meets our hot water needs indoors. Our outdoor solar shower, which has both hot and cold water, is a homemade coil of black hose that sits on the southern-sloped roof above the large redwood shower stall, provides plenty of free hot water. It also cleans our exercise clothes while we shower. On the few heavily cloud covered winter days that don’t heat enough water, we shower the traditional way – indoors. The solar shower water is detoured into a flower garden (we avoid any and all unhealthy soaps and toiletries). Even the septic fields provide water for trees and flowering bushes that beautify the surroundings, and keep much needed birds and bees nearby to help with pollination and insect control.
The durable redwood solar shower, more than roomy enough for two, is well lit with windows and sliding glass doors that look out into the private desert mountains.
Nothing is wasted – from overgrown green beans and squash, to food not consumed. It either goes to the chickens (we eat about a dozen eggs a day) or garden compost to continually rebuild soil nutrients.
There are many other ways to incorporate healthy living with saving energy while not sacrificing luxury. We don’t have a microwave or TV (they’re unhealthy when turned on and still use energy when turned off), no clothes dryer (this is Arizona) and only use the dishwasher once every few months for dinner parties. We don’t recycle (a topic for another column) and generate very little disposable garbage (most things are reused or composted). We might have two small kitchen garbage bags a month, so we don’t have sanitation pickup (instead we share with a neighbor).
Needless to say, our living expenses in 2010 are the least they’ve been since college days. We created this wonderful, luxurious, healthy and fun life because it’s just what we wanted. It gives us the time to enjoy each other, nature and our many other passions. There is more we can do, and we keep improving on things. Can you create this environment overnight? Probably not. But there’s no better time to start than now. Finally, if you have any energy-saving tips that you’d like to share with others, let me know so I can post your comments on my site.