Last week, the Frontier Café in Brunswick, Maine hosted a viewing of Kilowatt Ours–a short film about different ways we can all improve our energy efficiency. The slightly kitschy film starring Jeff Barrie (the filmmaker) and his wife explores the impacts of our large appetite for energy and the importance of finding alternatives to our current reliance on coal.
Barrie sets the stage with footage of coal mining practices in Appalachia–namely mountain top removal coal mining which literally involves blasting away whole mountains to get at the coal underneath. The most compelling footage, however, is of a coal slurry spill in Appalachia. In October 2000, a total of 300 million gallons of coal slurry (a toxic mix of carcinogens and heavy metals that is a by-product of “cleaning” the coal after it comes out of the ground) poured into a fork of the Big Sandy River when a containment pond failed. The slurry buried over 75 miles of waterway, effectively killing the river. It flooded houses and yards, contaminated the drinking water of countless communities and disrupted or killed tons of wildlife.
So, how do we reduce our reliance on coal?
By increasing our efficiency and tapping into alternative energies. There are a bunch of ways to do this and some of them will save you a chunk of change in the long run. (The Barrie’s cut their power bill in half by changing to CFLs and upgrading their fridge.)
- You’ve heard it before, but replacing your regular incandescent light bulbs with Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (or CFLs) is a quick way to save money and use less energy. Although CFLs cost a little more than regular lightbulbs, they last way longer and use three quarters less energy. One warning: they’ve got mercury in them so make sure you follow the specific guidelines for recycling and cleaning up broken bulbs.
- When it comes time to replace your appliances, make sure you buy Energy Star certified ones. Energy Star is a certification program that rates appliances on how much energy they use–or more appropriately, how much energy they save. New models are constantly improving their efficiency–today’s fridges are 20% more efficient than the ones built just 2 years ago–so even if you could squeeze another year or so out of an old clunker, it may save you more money to replace it with a more efficient model.
- If your furnace dates back to the original Star Wars movie you’ll probably need an upgrade sometime soon. Rather than just replacing your HVAC system (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) with a newer model, consider installing a geothermal heat pump. Geothermal pumps tap into the stable temperature of the ground in order to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. It can be expensive to install, but the savings more than make up for it over the life of the system–especially considering the rising cost of oil.
- Installing solar panels or a wind turbine can also save you money. And if you generate more power than you need, the excess electricity gets put back into the system and your power meter spins backwards. Solar panels are becoming increasingly more affordable, even on par with coal (see Nanosolar ). And the technology is getting way cooler. Now you can get roof shingles that double as solar panels and soon hybrid drivers will be able to buy aluminum solar panels for the roofs of their cars.
- If you can’t afford to generate your own “green energy,” you can always switch to buying green electricity from your local utilities. Most suppliers offer green alternatives–electricity generated from solar arrays, wind turbines and low-impact hydro electric dams–at just a slight premium. This won’t save you any money, but it reduces our dependance on fossil fuels. Here’s the deal: the more alternative energy we ask for, the less electricity will come from coal–that means more solar arrays and less coal-fired power plants.
There’s lots of information on energy efficiency / alternative energy out there, but if you have a question, please post a comment. And if we can answer it, we will.