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In Part 1 of our interview, Michael Potts talked about the changes that independent homeowners have experienced in their quest for self sufficiency. This time around, the conversation shifts to the average American homeowner. Potts explains that the "modern American home" is the biggest obstacle to generating independent energy. Suburban sprawl comes at a close second. However, the good news is that we can all "cut [our] domestic energy use in half, and then in half again, without giving up an ounce of quality of life." Potts' suggestions include:
For these recommendations and others, Potts explains best. It's easy to see that this solar expert genuinely cares about the subject matter, looking beyond solar panels to their potential in contributing to much needed change in the way we all look at energy consumption.
For the average American homeowner, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to generating independent, renewable energy? How can a willing homeowner overcome some of these obstacles, such as the initial cost of installing solar panels?
The biggest obstacle is the "modern American home." Most homes built since 1920 are energy hogs that aren't very good candidates for efficiency measures -- the first step in energy self-sufficiency -- and so the best their owners can hope for is a reduction in their hoggishness. More about that in a bit.
To expand on the metaphor in your first question, the fabric of American housing is the biggest problem. If it takes a fossil-fuel powered car to get to work, the store, school, then no amount of efficiency at home can balance the energy budget. Suburban sprawl is an energy nightmare. The Manhattan apartment dweller who doesn't own a car takes up much less of the world's energy than someone living in a split-level ranch house in Texas.
Energy self-sufficiency doesn't start with installing solar panels. A truly energy efficient house is a whole-energy system that starts before the first spadeful of dirt is dug, and encompasses the whole house from orientation and siting to foundation insulation and attic ventilation. The solar panels are like the home's leaves: it takes plenty of root, trunk, branch, and twig to present them to their best advantage in the sun. Building an efficient house from scratch is much easier than retrofitting an existing, and most likely energy-corrupt house, for self-sufficiency.
Nevertheless, we can all increase efficiency. I am surprised by how many incandescent light bulbs I still see in friends' homes, and on the shelves in the megamart. Energy obsessives like me are already leaving mercury-polluted compact fluorescent bulbs behind in favor of power LEDs, because 15 watts, like 60 watts, is simply too much to pay for light we can get for 5 watts. This kind of nit-picking efficiency applies to every energy appliance in the home: windows, refrigeration, hot water, space heating. A ten-year-old appliance is probably inefficient; a modern, efficient replacement will likely save its cost in decreased electricity use over its lifetime. Americans could cut their domestic energy use in half, and then in half again, without giving up an ounce of quality of life. The initial cost of solar panels to provide a substantial proportion of a home's energy drops dramatically as the home's energy usage drops.
Following the money helps: identify the biggest energy users and upgrade them first. Rewindowing -- replacing existing single pane windows with high tech glass -- is an often neglected step, because we don't recognize windows as "energy appliances." Hot water is one of our most expensive luxuries, so adding solar thermal panels to preheat water cuts this cost. Each stepwise refinement in a home's energy regime should liberate funding to make the next step, so that when it's time to cover the roof with PVs the cost won't be as daunting.
Today, just as in the early 1990s for the early energy pioneers, the bite of initial cost has to be taken out of a comprehensive energy budget that reallocates tiny incremental savings toward a long-term goal, energy self-sufficiency, accord with Nature, reduced dependence on foreign energy sources. One surprisingly large obstacle is our American propensity for considering only purchase price, not operating cost, in evaluating an appliance. As gas prices crawl upwards toward global norms, we see fuel economy getting some small consideration in some quarters -- although there sure are a lot of SUVs around! But who thinks beyond the yellow sticker when buying a refrigerator or water heater?
What are some easy ways that homeowners can increase the energy efficiency of their homes?
Again, follow the money. Drive less. Rewindow. Solar hot water. High-tech lighting. Efficient heating and refrigeration. Don't forget to earmark the savings for an ever-increasing program of energy efficiency.
--Stay tuned for the final segment of our interview, in which Potts leaves us with his concluding thoughts.
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