Sustainability: big & little choices

DOWNEY - Life is full of big and little choices. When it comes to living more sustainably in our precious and increasingly fragile environment, the same is also true. Many times these big choices are expensive, while the little ones may well be low-cost or free. Inevitably, the expensive choices require a decision based on cost-effectiveness, raising the question, "Is this expensive choice worth the money?"I'm going to take the liberty of speaking in the first person in this week's article in order to describe one of those big choices that my wife, Kathy, and I have made in our own efforts to live more sustainably. In the spring of 2009, we decided to install whole-house solar at our residence in Downey. This decision came upon us unexpectedly through a cold call from a solar salesman. I first talked to him individually, and he quickly discovered he was preaching to the choir, because I was already aware of and concerned about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions in my own personal life. The possibility of significantly reducing our carbon footprint was really attractive. But the price tag was a little scary. I cautiously broached the subject with Kathy, only to discover that she was already much more ready than I was to make that commitment. So, after some careful cost comparison, we moved forward, signed a contract, and our new solar panels went into operation on May 4, 2009. On that date, the panels on our roof began to soak up the sun's energy, converting it into the electricity needed to run our refrigerator, lights, hair-dryer, computer, television, and all our other electrical needs. Beyond that we began to watch our electric meter run backwards as the surplus went back into the Southern California Edison grid, crediting us when our energy use was net negative. We also took advantage of both federal and state energy rebates that were available at the time. We installed two more panels than the number recommended by the salesman, in case we might increase our electricity usage down the line with, perhaps, the acquisition of an electric car. And our initial estimate was that the system would pay for itself over a period of about fifteen years. What we've discovered at the end of the second year of use is that our total annual outlay for electricity was $85. That was our ANNUAL cost in 2010-11, as contrasted with a monthly average of about $150 before we installed solar. The system has a twenty-five year warranty, so we can look forward to almost zero electricity costs as we both approach retirement in the next few years and our income decreases. Now let's contrast that with one of those little choices that we have also made at our house during the past year. I had read in a couple of publications that the energy use of cable TV boxes on standby was 80-90% of their use when turned on. Since we watch very little television, we decided to connect all our television and audio equipment to a power strip, which we turn on only on those rare occasions when we watch TV. We've discovered that an individual channel appears about twenty seconds after switching on the power, and all cable network information is available by about twenty minutes later. For us, this approach is neither an inconvenience nor a sacrifice. And I'm betting that the savings from this small choice will zero out that last $85 in our annual electricity bill. There are a number of options to the outright purchase of whole-house solar, as well as a few other ramifications of our own big choice to install solar. I'll be detailing those next week in a follow up article. Meanwhile, this morning the digital readout on our inverter tells me we have saved just over 13 tons of CO2 since our solar went operational. To us, that was a big choice well worth the investment.

********** Published: October 20, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 27