Author Archives: clare-admin

40 Green Actions You Can Start Today

simple green actions to start todayFor the past month I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a climate change discussion group in my community. We’ve been reading EAARTH, and discussing the realities of climate change both world wide and within our own small part of SW Wisconsin. And we’ve been trying to envision what action looks like for us.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how big this problem is, and how little it seems like our personal actions are. The Tanzanian’s have a saying, “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba.” Which translates to “Little by little the bucket gets filled,” and that’s important for us to keep in mind. Yes, we may have seemingly little say in the policies enacted within our own states and country, let alone in the worldwide cooperation that is needed to tackle our energy, and resource issues and our greenhouse gas emissions. But we can start taking simple, concrete actions now. And as we successfully implement each habit, it will be easier to take the next step. Little by little, we’ll fill the bucket.

So with those thoughts in mind, here’s a list of actions you can start taking right now to increase conservation, decrease energy use, and reduce your carbon footprint.

40 green actions you can start today

1. Switch out your incandescent light bulbs for LED light bulbs.

2. Plug your electronics into a power strip, and turn off the power strip when you’re not using them.

3. Turn your thermostat up a few degrees now (and down a few degrees in the winter).

4. Sign up for your local power companies green energy program, you’ll pay a little extra for your energy, but you’ll get it from renewable supplies and tell your power company how important it is for them to invest in renewables.

5. Set the temperature on your hot water heater to 120 degrees or lower.

6. Hang dry your laundry.

7. Stop watering your grass.

8. Plant something edible.

9. Shop your local farmers market.

10. Bring reusable bags along for all your shopping trips (not just to the grocery store!)

11. Purchase dry goods like beans, grains, and pasta from the bulk bins.

12. Start a compost pile.

13. Clean with vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap.

14. Walk if your destination is less than a mile away. Work your way up to two miles away.

15. Look for opportunities to carpool or take public transportation.

16. Add meat-free meals to your repertoire.

17. Purchase humanely and ethically raised meat.

18. Unsubscribe from catalogs

19. Unsubscribe from “junk” mailings

20. Refresh yourself on your communities recycling capabilities and look for opportunities to expand your recycled materials.

21. Carry a reusable water bottle or coffee mug.

22. Use reusable bags or glasses for food storage.

23. Eat fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown in your area.

24. Support local small businesses and local trades workers.

25. Shop consignment or second hand stores for clothing, rather than buying new.

26. Share infrequently used appliances and tools with your neighbors, like lawn mowers.

27. Shovel your snow instead of using a snow blower.

28. Set up a clothing swap among your friends and neighbors.

29. Support local conservation by visiting your state parks.

30. Let your grass grow a bit longer between mowings.

31. Purchase “made in America” and recycled materials.

32. Donate your own no longer used items to second hand stores.

33. Cook more meals at home.

34. Make your own coffee.

35. Use mulch on your garden to cut down on watering needs.

36. Wash your clothing on the cold cycle.

37. Switch from paper napkins, towels, and tissue to cloth.

38. Check out books from the library.

39. Sign up for electronic statements.

40. Sign up for electronic bill pay.

Again, these simple actions aren’t going to save the world from climate change, but they will start a habit of mindfulness about consumption and energy use. These small actions can help pave the way for you to start taking bigger actions, and they can start conversations with your neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers.

Do you have others to add to this list? Send them my way!

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Home Solar Power: How much solar power do I need?

A few weeks ago I wrote about getting started with a home solar power project. That post was an overview on how much power you might need to power your home, and how much a home solar power project is likely to cost you. This week I’m going to start the deep dive, and I’ll use our home as an example.

How much solar power do I need

So, how much solar power do I need?

Well, let’s start with a quick overview of our household, so you can do a simple comparison to your own home and get an idea of if you’ll need more or less before doing your own deep dive.

Our house is a single story bungalow, a little over 1000 square feet. It is home to my husband Neil, our toddler Eli, and myself. We live in a small town in Wisconsin, so we have both cold winters, and fairly warm, humid summers. We are careful with our energy use, but we enjoy pretty much all modern amenities, with the exception of a dishwasher and a microwave. Our appliances are aging, 15 – 20 years is my guess, and we have an electric stove.

We are connected to the grid, and if we put in solar power here, we would stay connected to the grid.

Step 1: Calculate your energy use

Look up the amount of Kwh of electricity that you have used for each billing cycle over the past year. Add it all together, and divide by 365 (or 366 if it was a leap year).

You might think that you should look at your highest energy use month and use that to find your daily use. This method would help ensure that you are drawing all your energy from solar power all year long, but it is also going to cause the size of your solar project to go up quite a bit. This can be both cost and space prohibitive.

By building a solar power project based on energy use averaged over the entire year, you will probably have to buy some extra electricity during the winter, when there is less sunshine and you are possibly using more electricity. But in the summer, you will produce enough to sell back to the grid, recouping your electricity costs in the winter, and over time your solar power project costs. It will also keep your solar panel array to a more manageable size and cost.

Realistically, if you live in a city or town, you’re just not going to have the space necessary to put in enough solar power to meet your entire usage needs. But knowing how much you are using daily will put your project in scope from the beginning, and maybe also help you to think about where you could start cutting back. Remember, if you don’t use the energy in the first place you don’t have to pay for it, and we don’t have to create it by any means, saving all sorts of resources.

OK, so on to our house and our energy use. For the 7 months that we’ve been home owners thus far, I’ve been chronicling our energy use in the energy efficiency project posts. So far we’ve used 2873 Kwh over 208 days. This puts our average daily use at 13.8 Kwh. This is actually a pretty low ball estimate of our daily electricity use, because keep in mind that we were only living here part time for 5 of those months. As we continue living in this house, I’ll revisit these numbers and update as we get a more realistic idea of our average daily use.

Ok. So our goal is to produce 13.8 Kwh of electricity each day with our future solar panels.

Step 2: Find the amount of sun hours your location gets

We use 13.8 kwh of electricity each day, on average. But we don’t need to produce all that electricity at once, just over the course of the day. Because, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the sun doesn’t shine for just one hour most days. In the summer, it might be shining for 14 – 16 hours per day, and with solar panels you can turn that sunlight into electricity the entire time it’s shining. But, as I’m also sure you’re well aware, sometimes the sun really does only peak out for a short while, and some days not at all. So you need to find the average amount of time that the sun shines in your location each day.

Most companies that sell solar panels and accessories have charts and maps that can help you figure our the average hours of sunshine your location gets per day. For example, this chart on the Wholesale Solar website tells me that Madison, WI gets an average of 4.3 hours of sunlight each day. Again, this number is averaged over the entire year, so using it in my calculations means that on cloudy winter days, I’ll probably have to purchase electricity from the grid. But on sunny summer days, I’ll produce extra electricity that I’ll be able to sell back to my power company.

Step 3: Calculate the amount of solar power capacity you need. 

Solar power capacity is the amount of kilowatts your panel array can produce when the sun is shining on it at any moment. It’s pretty simple to calculate: Take your average daily electricity use, and divide it by the average daily hours of sunlight in your area.

For us, 13.8 kwh / 4.3 hours = 3.2 kilowatts.

So we want enough solar panels to produce 3.2 kilowatts of electricity.

Step 4: Factor in efficiency

You may remember from high school physics (or maybe not) that when energy is converted from one form to another, their are losses. In this case, when the light energy from the sun is converted into electrical energy by the solar panels, not all of the solar energy collected gets turned into electricity. Some of it is lost as heat, or friction between the electrons in the wires, etc. Currently, solar panels are 78% efficient. Meaning that 78% of the solar energy they collect, makes it into electricity.

In order to account for this efficiency (or inefficiency, as the case may be) we divide our solar power capacity by 0.78.

So, how much solar power do I need? 3.2 Kw * 0.78 = 4.1 Kw

In order to power our home we need enough panels to produce 4.1 Kw of electricity. How about you?

Or at least in an ideal situation. Next time we’ll take a look at other things we need to consider.

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Want to learn more about solar power? Check out how it’s made in these posts: Solar Power part 1, Solar Power part 2

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The Energy Efficiency Project: Month 7

energy efficiency project June 11th – July 13th, 32 days

We had a wet June and beginning of July in SW Wisconsin. Which led us to discover that are gutters are sagging in the front of our house, and therefore not directing the water to the downspout, but instead it’s basically just spilling right out in streams along the front of our house whenever it rains. And all that water coming down right along the front foundation of our house has left us with a soggy basement.

Ah, the joys of home ownership.

So to start battling the soggy basement we got a dehumidifier. And it does a decent job of drying out our basement, but it’s quite the little electricity suck, as you will see.

But I did replace yet another CFL lightbulb with an LED lightbulb. Progress?

This month’s upgrade cost: $8.82

Total upgrade cost to date: $26.64

Over 32 days we used 613 KWH. Which comes out to an average 19.2 KWH/day. Compared to the last billing period average of 13.4 KWH/day, you can really see how much electricity that dehumidifier was using while it dried out our basement. We also were making greater use of our ceiling fans, which also adds to our summer electricity use.

We are part of the Alliant Energy Second Nature renewable energy program, at the 100% level. (In this program you can choose the amount of your energy use that you want to be matched in renewables, and we chose 100%.) The cost of our renewable energy was $0.14 per KWH for this billing cycle, for a total of $86.98

This month we used 0 Therms of natural gas heat energy. Which averages out to 0.0 Therms/day. However we did still have a small charge to keep our gas on this month, and probably also to pay for meter readers and what not. Degree days this month compared to last month: 25 vs. 148

The natural gas market fluctuates in Wisconsin, so there is not an easy dollar per Therm number to give you, but during this billing period we paid $10.53 for our gas use.

Our energy bill also provides these numbers for helpful comparison:

Electricity used this month last year: 735 KWH. I find it comforting that even with our spike in electricity use this month, we’re still maintaining less energy use than the previous owners. This is purely speculation, because I don’t know what their habits were, but I think this is due to the fact that we almost never use the drier, we use fans and open windows rather than the air conditioning, and I have a hunch they were running a small business from home, so I think we also use less electronics than they did.

Gas used this month last year: Unavailable – I think this is about the time the previous owners moved out and put this house on the market, so they may have turned off the gas for the summer. Average temperature this month: 68° F. This month last year: 71° F.

Degree Days this month: 25 vs this month last year: 6. Degree days are the number of degrees below 65° F in one day, all added together for the total 32 days of the billing period.

Have you signed up for the building earth newsletter yet? You can do that here!

Want to see previous months of the Energy Efficiency Project? Here is Month 1Month 2, Month 3Month 4Month 5, and Month 6.

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Re-use: lumber into book shelves

When we bought our house last winter, we up-sized from a 500 square foot apartment to about 1000 square feet. Giving us quite a bit more space to furnish. We also are ready to say goodbye to some of our mass produced, not-so-high-quality furniture, and invest in some furniture that will last us decades rather than a few years.

One of the first furnishings we needed to think about was some shelving. I wanted something that was custom designed for our needs, sturdy, attractive, and earth friendly. Currently, I’m most inspired by rustic and industrial furnishings, so I had been eyeing some of the following pictures as inspiration:

rustic pipe shelves

source: Keen

I like that the mounted shelves are easily customized, and can be moved around if we want a different configuration in the future. And I love the chunky look of the pipe shelving. So I combined the two, and made wall mounted shelves with 2″ thick boards rather than 1″.

Reusing lumber to make bookshelves

So what made these shelves a bit more earth friendly? I got half of my lumber from my local Habitat Restore, which means it was either salvaged from some deconstructed project, or the left-overs from a project. Reusing materials that still have plenty of life left in them allowed us to save some boards from the burn or trash pile, and helps keep a tree from being cut down.

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Home Solar Power: Getting Started

home solar powerA couple weekends ago I had to opportunity to attend a class entitled “Do It Yourself Photovoltaics” which was put on through our local garden center. The man who taught the class, Mr. Jon Passi, stressed that his goal was to make solar power projects as accessible as possible to others, and encouraged us to share what we learned from his class with our neighbors, so I’d like to share a bit about what I learned with you.

home solar panels 3

How Much Solar Power Do You Need

The first step to getting a home solar project going is to figure out how much power you need. Most power companies these days will provide graphs of your power use for the past year, so you can see how much electricity you use each month. When you look at this graph you’ll probably see that you have a season of the year where you use quite a bit of electricity, and a season where you use less. For my family, we use more electricity in the winter time than the summer, because we are more likely to be inside, and because it is dark during more of our waking hours. But if you might find that the opposite is true for you, depending on your habits and your home.

So, take a look at your energy use over the course of a year. With solar power, you produce the amount of electricity you use each day, and then start over again the next day. Figure out what your average monthly electricity use is. Then divide that number by 30 to get an estimate of your average daily electricity use. For the average American family, this number is somewhere in the range of 20 – 40 Kwh per day.

Your average daily electricity use is what you’re shooting to produce with a home solar power project. Yes, some days you will use more, but if you’re still connected to the power grid, you’ll be able to draw whatever extra you need from your power company. And on other days you will use less electricity than the average, and on those days you will be able to sell back any extra that you produce to the power company. It will all even out in the end, and usually in your favor – depending on your power company, you’ll be able to sell your extra electricity to the power company for more than you are paying for the little bit you need from them on cloudy days or days when your energy use is a bit higher than average.

home solar panels 2

How Much Will Home Solar Power Cost

The next step is to figure out if you can lower this number. Home solar projects are still pretty expensive, so the more you can lower your daily needs, the less you need to invest in supplying that power. Before you start shelling out dollars for solar panels, maybe it’s the right time to upgrade to a more energy efficient refrigerator, dish washer, or washer and drier. Maybe it’s time to commit to hang drying your clothes. Make sure your computer, television, and gaming systems are all on power strips that you turn off when you’re not using them to reduce the amount of phantom load your electronics are drawing. Upgrade your lightbulbs to LEDs. Before you spend $10k+ on solar panels, spend a couple months committing to lowering your energy use, and then recalculate your average daily electricity use.

A good rule of thumb right now for how much a home solar power project is going to cost you is to multiply your average daily electricity use by 1000. So if your home uses 22 Kwh of electricity per day, the cost of a project big enough to cover your entire energy needs would be about $22,000.

Before you get bug eyed at the cost of a home photovoltaic project, keep in mind that there are currently lots of opportunities for energy rebates. The federal government will give you 30% of the cost of the project in rolling tax breaks. (Rolling means that if you don’t use the whole 30% the first year, you can take the remainder the following years until you reach the full 30%.) Many power companies are also offering rebates for home solar projects right now as well. Mr. Passi gave us some examples of projects that he worked on in the past couple years, and many times the after rebate costs were around 60% of the total cost of the project.

Also, keep in mind that solar panels take up quite a bit of space. You likely won’t have enough room on your roof (especially in a city or suburb situation) to even install enough solar to cover the entirety of your daily use. When you look at how much solar power you can actually install on your house, the scope of your home solar power project may drop significantly. And even if you’re only supplying some of your home electricity needs, on sunny summer days, you will likely still produce quite a bit of extra electricity to sell back to the grid.

I have plenty more to share on this topic, but I think this is a good start for today. In the future I’ll get into more about the components you need for a home solar power project, and use our house as an example for figuring out how much electricity you need to produce and the costs of completing that project.

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