How to Live a Low-Energy Lifestyle

Al Gore is really doing it, bringing climate awareness to the doorsteps of opinion makers and forcing them to consider all of its implications. Of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished in this country.

Aside from all the sniping about his annual home power bill (which turns out to be so high partly because he spends an extra five grand or so to buy wind power and might also have something to do with a vice president's security needs), lots of the usual "free market uber alles" types are accusing him and all green-minded folks of forcing them to wear the dreaded "hair shirt" of mandatory reductions in their energy use.

Incredibly, those who aren't complaining about the sacrifices are indignant about Gore making it all seem too easy. In Robert J. Samuelson's New York Times editorial last week titled "Hollywood's Climate Follies," he accuses Gore of painting the issue as "saints vs. sinners" and failing to acknowledge that "the lifestyles that produce greenhouse gases are deeply ingrained in modern economies and societies. ... Those who believe that addressing global warming is a moral imperative face an equivalent moral imperative to be candid about the costs, difficulties and uncertainties."

It's hard to tell exactly what triggered Samuelson's outrage, but it seems to be a line from Gore's Oscar acceptance speech where he said, "We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it."

But what will it take to renew that resource? Everywhere the conventional wisdom is that Americans will never give up their big cars, big houses, air conditioning set at 65 degrees on hot summer afternoons and incandescent light bulbs blazing throughout the house. This is the American way of life, and the idea that it cannot last seems to drive some people into hysterical fits. Don't just do something, panic! Al Gore and the greenies want to send us back to the 1970s!

There's no decade more reviled than the 1970s. Everything about it, from the funky earth-tone fashions, to the granola-chomping hippies, to disco, has been the butt of countless jokes. What I remember most about the '70s though, was getting my driver's license and then having to wait in line to buy gas because OPEC had decided to act like capitalists and charge what the market would bear. That formative experience set me on a career path concerned with energy and the environment. It also committed me to lifestyle choices that have led to me to where I am now -- sitting on a hillside in Oregon just beyond reach of the power grid.

With all the attention now on what are admittedly going to be the great challenges and sacrifices that lie ahead, I feel it incumbent to serve as an ambassador for the American low-energy lifestyle. It's really not so bad, folks.

That said, there's no way in which I feel I am some sort of paragon of sustainable living. I'm not. I drive a car, I buy too many cheap, imported consumer goods, and I take lots of hot baths and showers. In many ways, my life is like that of any typical suburban homeowner of modest means. Except that I make my own power for 11 months out of the year.

It's only 11 months, because after the rains start in November, it still takes a month for the creek to rise high enough to run the small hydropower generator that gets me through the cloudy winter months. So there's a month of running the gas generator, at least part of the time. But from April to October, there's plenty of sunshine to keep my batteries charged. And my system is a relatively small one. I have 700 watts of solar power that cost me about $5,000 to purchase and install.

My small power system is enough because I have taken several easy measures to keep my energy use within my means. No. 1 is to turn things off when they are not in use -- this includes light bulbs as well as the plethora of electronics and appliances that sit around sucking up standby power. Seventy-five percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off. Across the United States, this equals the annual output of 12 power plants and costs consumers over $1 billion each year. Buy some power strips so you can take back control over these "vampire loads."

Light bulbs are also crucial. Lighting is about 25 percent of US electricity use. Compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs use about one-third the energy of incandescent bulbs. I hear a lot of griping about compact fluorescents -- the color is weird, they're not as bright, etc., and I don't understand it. I've been using them for ten years now and they have gotten so much better! The old ones were an awful blue color and they cost 10 or 15 bucks a piece. Now you can get them in a full spectrum of colors for less than two dollars. I don't miss incandescents a bit. Except for the sauna -- don't put a CF bulb where it will get too hot, like a recessed lighting fixture. I'm going to get one of the LED bulbs for my wood-fired sauna.

My small power system won't allow me to run electric heat or air conditioning. I have a wood stove for heat that also supplies hot water in the winter, and I don't need air conditioning here in Oregon. I have a propane refrigerator, bought back before we added the backup gas generator. I may switch to a superefficient, electric-powered refrigerator at some point. That leaves laundry. Luckily, the other member of my household seems to enjoy the trip to the town laundromat. It's a chance to hang out at the bagel shop and socialize.

Does all this amount to a hair shirt? Am I suffering, or do I feel deprived? No. When I need light, I have light. I've got a computer, phone and home entertainment whenever I want it. I stay warm, and I eat good food. I have friends and neighbors who share my values. We eat home-grown vegetables, play home-grown music and celebrate life. We eat (gasp!) granola.

I think there was a campaign against the hippies -- I'll never understand why we got such bad press, except that I think we were bad for business. We tended to value community over consumerism. But despite the repression, there are many ways that the hippie ideals have carried through into the mainstream culture.

The back-to-the-land movement may have started with the Foxfire series, that wonderful compendium of Appalachian traditional arts and crafts, but it ended with Martha Stewart. The American handcraft tradition is something we still long for. When we can't afford the shipping for cheap Chinese goods, maybe we'll support native handcrafters again. One person's hair shirt is another person's hand-knitted sweater from soft, locally grown Merino wool.

Living with the earth rhythms the way you do off-grid isn't for everyone, and it doesn't have to be. You don't have to like the hippie style or aesthetic. But you might have to start looking more Euro or Japanese than you really want to. The Japanese use half the energy we do, yet still maintain an affluent lifestyle. Many European countries do the same. We can look to Japan and Europe for models, but we can also do it our own way.

Now is our chance to develop the American low-energy lifestyle. You can see how I do it. Multiply my investment by ten and you can outfit a regular suburban house in California to meet all of its own energy needs plus charge an electric car. See "The Near-Zero-Energy Home Makeover" in Solar Today. But not everyone can afford to make that kind of personal investment in solar energy. We have to pull together to make it happen. It's mostly a matter of changing our priorities.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has projected that the final cost of the Iraq war will be at least a trillion dollars. I wondered how much solar power that money would buy, so I made a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation. The installed cost of solar power is currently about $9 a watt, so $20,000 would buy a 2.2 kilowatt solar power system. That is enough power for a household with modest needs to spin the meter backward a good portion of the time. A trillion dollars would put a system like that on 50 million roofs.

Our parents and grandparents rose to the challenges of WWII and retooled our domestic industries into a finely honed war machine in a matter of months. There was no whining about "hair shirts" and sacrifice. There's a part of us that longs to make the kind of noble sacrifice we are called on to do in wartime. Many, many people are looking at their children today and wondering what they can do to leave them a world cool enough to live in. They are ready to do something now but don't know where to start. Here are the first two things everyone should do right now.

Start by turning things off. That's a very American mode from my growing up. Parents who lived through the Depression were always telling you to turn the lights off. Thrift is a virtue.

The other immediate sacrifice we all should make is to devote whatever amount of time it takes to contact all of our state and federal representatives and instruct them to start legislating Al Gore's 10-point action plan into reality. Do it now. There is no time to waste.

Note: Here's my advice for anyone who wants to start investing in a home energy system now. The variety of federal and state incentives programs is confusing, so start by going to, a website supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the solar power industry. There you will find a database of qualified solar installers, along with a handy tool to estimate the size, cost and payback time of a system that meets your needs, taking into account your area's solar potential and the state programs you are eligible for. One word of caution: The estimator asks you to input your current average monthly power bill as a way of calculating your energy needs. This may lead to a much larger system than you really need. If you haven't already taken steps to reduce your use, do that first. In our experience of living off-grid, we have learned that it is much cheaper to invest in energy-saving light bulbs and appliances than to buy additional solar modules.

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