LaundrybuttonsWhen talking about energy conservation, I hold this vision of rewinding our usage all the way back to the source: flicking a switch and traveling to the place where the energy is made. In over half the country, that primary source is a coal-fired plant. Coal plants are not only one of the greatest sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, they are our largest source of mercury contamination and a major air pollutant.

Coal plants are always cited near bodies of water. In my town, the coal plant (one of the dirtiest in the nation) is located right beside our primary source of drinking water. I have no words for what it feels like to see the sludging pools where the coal plant cools its sediment and know that muck is going right back into my water.

I care about becoming more energy efficient in order to reduce costs, but I care even more about efficiency as a means of reducing the amount of coal that gets burned—thereby keeping my air, soil, and water clean and my loved ones and myself healthy.

My mentor Hunter Lovins calls efficiency our first renewable energy resource. She’s right—and I should have been a lot more discriminating in the tips I rattled off about “going green.” There are certain actions that have a significantly greater impact than others.  I reasoned if folks embraced one tip, they’d jump on the bandwagon and embrace all the others. But that’s not exactly how most of us are wired. We humans suffer from something psychologists call “single action bias,” which basically means once we’ve done one thing, we’re tempted to check an issue off our list and move on. Instead of asking you to rewire your brains (I’m saving that for my book), I want to share the areas where you can have the greatest impact. So if you are only doing one thing, you’ll know how much of a difference it really makes.

Researchers Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern have made this easy. Their incredible study “The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change” details the impacts of our most common household items. The single biggest energy hog within the home is our cars, which accounts for almost 40 percent of the energy used in our lives. You can reduce your impact by buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, carpooling, and making sure your ride is tuned up and running at its best.

What I am especially concerned with here are the electricity hogs that keep us burning coal. The hungriest devices are the ones that heat and cool our homes (accounting for 25 percent of the energy used), warm our water (6.5 percent), and light up our lives (about 6 percent).

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