Sunday, March 2, 2008

Economics of Going Green

--WEEKEND FEATURE ARCHIVE: "Greener Days w/Sara Gordon"--

Going green seems like a luxury to many. The costs to invest in energy efficiency can seem prohibitive, but once again, it’s essential to put it into context, and to force ourselves out of short-term thinking. Efficient light bulbs cost more but the payback is less than a year. Weather-stripping, low-flow shower heads, better insulation – these all cost something now, but save money nearly right away. Other strategies have sizable up front costs, while some steps we can take cost nothing at all.

I talk to a lot of people about installing photovoltaic (PV) systems that produce electricity from sunlight and silicon, right on the roof of one’s own home or business. No more electricity from burning fossil fuels to inefficiently, filthily produce electricity somewhere away. It’s expensive. In my area, after the utility company’s rebates, it costs somewhere around $15,000 to make the switch to PV. At the pace electric rates are going up here, though, the solar panels, with a life-expectancy of 25 to 30 years, will produce well over $150,000 worth of electricity; the break-even point is around 8 years. (These figures are within a range that varies according to system size, patterns of energy use and local electric rates.)

It’s hard to understand why that $15,000 investment doesn’t make sense to the consumer or business owner who can afford to finance it. Why, for instance, does a new car purchase make sense, but not a similar or smaller payout for a technology that – in stark contrast to a car – will pay for itself, then save us a small fortune, meanwhile instantly eliminating or greatly reducing our contributions of CO2 into the atmosphere? If your roof is southerly-facing and can receive unobstructed sunlight for about 8 hours a day, make a few calls, get a couple of local PV system providers to come out and give you a free estimate, and see what your costs and long-term savings will be. No obligation.

I worked last year for a small business in a little converted house with a sizable south-facing roof. I coordinated the process of soliciting bids, choosing a system provider, replacing the roof and installing the PV array. I knew quite a bit about PV going in, and yet I was surprised and moved by how it felt for me, for the whole staff, the day the system went online and our meter started running backward. Suddenly, we were deriving clean energy from a combination of sun and sand and sending it back to the grid, instead of tacitly accepting the polluting power provided by our electric company. We’d take note of the weather in the morning and picture a sunny day powering our office, and stop on our way in to look the meter going backward while it generated enough clean power to meet our use and send some back into the grid. In ensuing weeks, we took delight in making changes in our use patterns that enabled us to further conserve.

It is a simple but profound choice that is profoundly rewarding. And worth every nickel, if you can possibly swing it.

Whether or not solar electricity is feasible for you at this time, try investing small amounts of money, or no money but a little time, or simply the brain power, the mindfulness to change your ways, in order to reduce your reliance on, your overuse of conventional power. Perhaps one or more of these alternatives can work for you:

1. Change a light bulb, or a fixture. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) come in various hues now that include a warm, yellow light very much like incandescents. Remember, incandescent bulb technology has not advanced since Edison invented it; these bulbs waste 95% of their energy in heat. LED bulbs, which require a different socket, are much more efficient even than CFLs, and will become more and more widely available in the near future. Check out LEDs if you’re looking at new lamps or fixtures.

2. Drive less. Figure out ways to reduce car use by at least 20 miles per week. Ask your employer about telecommuting, or about creating an incentive plan for carpoolers. Take the time to plan shopping so you can make fewer trips to the store. Use your bike or mass transit, or walk!

3. Recycle more. Reduce your household CO2 emission by a ton or more by recycling just half your household waste.

4. Check your tires. Improve your gas mileage by the simple, mindful step of keeping your tires inflated properly. This is a fun one to do with your kids, an easy exercise they can help do and help by reminding you.

5. Reduce hot water use. Low-flow shower heads cost about twelve dollars and will reduce your energy bill. Wash in cold water instead of warm or hot.

6. Choose products with less packaging. Less packaging = less garbage; a 10% reduction in your household garbage volume saves over 1,000 pounds of CO2 emissions.

7. Adjust your thermostat. Two degrees cooler in winter, two degrees warmer in summer; that’s another ton of carbon dioxide saved. Wear a sweater at home in the winter, and use area fans to efficiently augment or replace air conditioning in summer.

8. Turn off the switch! Turning off electronic devices, using a power strip so you can easily turn off all the computer components, turning out the light when you leave the room! Radically simply actions each of us can take. Work toward the “one person, one light” paradigm: where you are, the light is on; where you are not, the light is not on.

Note that the suggestions on this particular list require little or no monetary investment. There are countless other alternative energy choices you can adopt if you can afford to, like one I just heard about: the solar-powered jacket that recharges an iPod! As time passes inventive producers will enable even the most high-consuming lifestyles to adapt to clean energy use.

Remember, it’s not about perfection, just progress. Small actions on a grand scale have enormous impact. Seek your individual path to reduced energy consumption. It’s out there. It’s up to you, it’s up to each of us, to find it.

Check out Sara's fascinating previous piece "Infinite Impact and the Consumer Effect" exposing the ultimate impact of consumer spending.

Sara Gordon is the founder of Greener Days, a green coaching and buying service assisting businesses and homeowners with reduction of ecological footprints. Sara is a LEED® Accredited Professional through the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program. She is also one of 1,000 North American Climate Ambassadors of The Climate Project and trained with Al Gore, in a team of educators and scientists, to educate citizens on environmentalism.
For more information on Greener Days go to


luis said...

Great blog!

If the economics don't work, recycling efforts won't either.
Http:// blogs about innovative entrepreneurs that make money selling recycled orreused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources. These includes some very cool Green online ventures and investments opportunities.

Stuart said...

There's a great free event taking place tomorrow in SF called "Energy Camp" which is geared toward helping you reduce your carbon footprint and emissions at work and at home. Register here if you're in the area!!

Anonymous said...

Does anybody know about this site ( ) ? I have seen other environmental sites with carbon calculators like yahoo and tree huggers, but I am wondering what the deal with is? I saw they also published a list last month of the top ten greenest cities ( ). Does anyone know if this site is better than the others? Fill me in!

I took their carbon foot print test and it was pretty interesting, they said that I put out 4.5 tons of carbon, does anyone know about any other tests?

JP said...

Great post, I've link to it from GreenDeals Daily.