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Why Care?

Posted by on July 25, 2011

When I started making biodiesel about nine years ago people would ask me why?  At the time, I could buy diesel fuel at the pump for about $1, and it was going to cost me about $1 to make the biodiesel. Then I had to factor in my time, and the almost $3k in equipment start up cost. Considering those initial facts their question had merit.  I always attempted to explain that it was not about the present cost of fuel, but what the longer-term impact for both the price and the environment would be.  Fast forward to today, diesel fuel is $4 a gallon, climate change is on the doorstep, and our dependency in the United States upon an oil supply from outside our borders is about 70%.

I apply the same logic for electricity.  When I have groups come out to TS Designs, I will ask a lot of them, especially if they are from North Carolina, do they know the where their electricity comes?  I get answers like hydro, nuclear, and then sometimes coal.  North Carolina utilities get over 60% of their electricity from COAL.  Then I usually follow up by asking where do we get our coal? Typically, the answer is the ground, but I am looking for something more specific, like West Virginia.  My last question is how do we extract the coal? I’m met with more blank stares, and the stares deepen when I explain the answer as mountain top removal. North Carolina is regularly first or second with Georgia for the most amount of coal that is extracted from West Virginia using mountain top removal.  We screw the folks in West Virginia, so we can have cheap energy.  Nowhere on Duke Energy’s annual report will you find the cost of destroying a mountain much less the CO2 impact.  The way Duke Energy measures the cost of coal is as the cheapest energy source available to them. But that clock is ticking both from the EPA stopping mountain top removal; and hopefully, soon regulating CO2.

I think the first step of energy conservation is knowing where your energy comes from, and the next step is determining how you use that energy.  When we moved to Snow Camp, we moved our electrical utility from Duke Energy to Randolph Electric Membership Corporation. They supplied me this graph when I asked what were their sources of energy.  Less that 4% is from sustainable sources which tells me cost will continue to go up in future years.  The cost of nuclear plants continues to grow and coal does not have a very bright future.  A report released in February of this year by Harvard professor and Huffington Post contributor Paul Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences entitled “Full Cost Accounting For the Life Cycle Of Coal” that puts the true cost of coal in the US from $175 billion or as high as $523 billion.

Graph supplied by Randolph Electric Membership

Last week, we have been looking at daytime temperatures in the high 90s, and it does not look like much will change for the next ten days.  So we hold our breath and watch those thermostats until that electric bill arrives.  This weekend we started to install the equipment to give us real time energy usage/cost via the internet.  With the help of my former neighbor and friend, Jerry, we installed the TED 5000. This will give us real time energy use and cost, but what good is that information if you do not know what is using the electricity?  That is where the big brains of Plotwatt, a new start up company in Durham fit into our learning curve.  These guys have figured out that appliances have unique energy signatures. For example, a clothes drier is going to have a different electrical footprint than your AC.  In the past that would mean the expense of monitoring equipment for each appliance making the cost of the project out of reach for most consumers.  The smart guys at Plotwatt, with a little help of a grant from GE ecomagination run an algorithm that determines these energy signatures.  By using PlotWatt we will have real and meaningful data on how much we are spending on lighting, HVAC, etc.   Not only will we have real time energy cost and CO2 impact, we will know the source of that usage so we can start taking steps to reduce it.


4 Responses to Why Care?

  1. Joni Barnhardt

    Hi Eric – Thanks for the thought-provoking blog. Recently I asked you about solar power and which company you thought was a good one and you referred me to Sam (who I haven’t asked yet! :-) ). Anyway, I was just wondering if you were planning on installing solar panels at your home at some point? My husband thinks we should hold off because many innovations are around the corner on solar, but may not be here yet…do you have any thoughts on this?

  2. Eric Henry

    Joni, PV is low on the list for us. Most homeowners overlook the low hanging, less sexy fruit like increasing their insulation or plugging the leaks in their house. I suggest getting a home energy audit done. I used the folks at Southern Energy Management and for about $350 and a half of day’s work they laid out a long term master-plan for Lisa and I to better manage and reduce our energy consumption. Your husband is correct on one point PV prices are coming down.

  3. Sam Moore

    Good morning Eric:

    I think what most people do not realize is the cost of unreliable energy. If one adds solar to a home or wind power, you decouple yourself from the power companies, whose agenda does not align with yours. I will buy an electric car in the next two years to drive down my operating costs and to decouple myself from EXXON, who does not represent my interests. I want to put solar on my home, but he homeowners association does not allow it! I may have to move, if I cannot change the rules. If you want to remove yourself from the angst concerning the mess in DC today, don’t own public stocks and don’t have much debt. We all can make decsions of where to shop and how to live, we just need to make them. Then, we can relax because if oil goes to $10/gallon, with an electric car, I don’t care so much. Or if interest rates go to 10%, I don’t care so much because I owe little money. We can all decouple from the BS, but you have to make the decsion to just do it. Energy audits, local food and a plan to live in a bit more harmony is a good thing in the midst of the “Great Disruption”.

    See you soon my friend-

  4. Randy Owens

    Great blog Eric. I’d love to hear more detail about the Energy Audit. I am working w/ SEM to install a solar thermal hot water system. My hot water is currently provided w/ propane heat and that is rapidly becoming more and more expensive! I definitely am interested in an energy audit as well.

    Also, would love to hear more about the TED and your setup/learning curve w/ PlotWatt.

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