Renewable Faith: Affordable, Renewable Energy

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Sheltering trees and an old-fashioned porch contribute to natural cooling.
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Thirty-six PV panels provide 70 percent of the needed electricity.
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Corn is cheaper and easier on the environment than natural gas.
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To save energy, the Tidwells dry clothes on a line.
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Mike Tidwell and his wife, Catherine, installed much of the PV system themselves.

All but a small fraction of my household energy budget comes from renewable, carbon dioxide-neutral sources. The electricity arrives from photovoltaic panels on the roof, the heating from an electronically controlled potbellied stove that burns corn kernels and warms most of my Takoma Park, Maryland, home, and the hot water from a separate rooftop panel that converts sunlight to infrared heat.

You must be thinking I’m a very wealthy man to be able to afford such extravagant gadgets. Everyone knows that amazingly effective renewable energy technologies are out there. The problem is that average Americans–the very people who need to switch if we’re going to stop global warming–simply can’t afford them, right?

Wrong. In my case, I’m a hopelessly middle-class, self-employed writer with a four-year-old son. No rich uncle died and left my wife, Catherine, and me a large inheritance. We didn’t scrape together years worth of savings. We made all of our energy changes abruptly, within the past six months, and now we’re spending the handsome sum of–get this–$38.83 per month to pay for them. And here’s the best part: Most of these planet-saving technologies are available and affordable right now for any homeowner willing to do a little bit of research, borrow a modest sum of money, and spend that money wisely.

A personal revolution

It was last January’s bombshell findings of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that motivated us to plot our home energy revolution. Disastrous planetary warming of up to 10.4 degrees by 2100 is doubly horrifying each time I look out at my son playing whiffle ball with playmates destined to live until 2070. We knew the modest targets set by the Kyoto Protocol wouldn’t save the planet either. Most scientists believe the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must drop a full 80 percent below current levels to stabilize the climate.

So that became our goal–to cut our household CO2 emissions by 80 percent. We developed a budget of $7,500. Being of modest means, we had to borrow the money in the form of a home equity loan. Our very first investment was a book called Homemade Money, published by the Rocky Mountain Institute for people wanting to save money through improved energy use. The first step, we learned, was to eliminate unnecessary energy consumption and to use more efficiently the energy we couldn’t live without. So we switched to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, bought an extremely high-efficiency refrigerator, and began drying our clothes on a line. With these and other changes, we cut our electricity use by 52 percent, from 3,760 kilowatt hours in 2000 to an annual rate of around 1,800 kWh.

It then became plausible to meet at least part of our newly trimmed energy demand with our own solar generation. And here’s where we encountered the first of several pleasant surprises: We could go solar, in a big way, even on a budget. We quickly learned that the state of Maryland offers grants of up to $3,600 toward solar photovoltaic systems, plus a deduction of 15 percent of the cost of the system from your state income tax.

With a hefty grant in hand, we went shopping for solar panels and got another big surprise: A local solar advocacy group–the Virginia Alliance for Solar Electricity–was heavily discounting the price of panels thanks to a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Energy. Taking advantage of both of these programs and installing much of the system ourselves, we were able to realize our greatest dream–thirty-six solar panels on our roof generating 70 percent of our electricity.

Feeling the heat

Having tackled the big hurdle of electricity, we had almost half of our original $7,500 budget still in hand to apply to our next big challenge: heating. We knew that a typical U.S. household spends 44 percent of its energy budget heating and cooling the home. As for cooling, we get by with ceiling fans. But in winter, we spend up to $200 per month heating with natural gas. We had to find a new source of heat.

But what? A small company in Minnesota answered the question. Twelve years ago, ex-farmer Mike Haefner, president of American Energy Systems, engineered the first-ever corn-burning stove designed to heat modern homes. Sales were flat until last year, when rising fuel prices and growing concerns about the environment increased company sales 500 percent. This small, easy-to-install stove easily heats a 2,000-square-foot home (ours is 1,600 square feet) and can accommodate a thermostat. The stove can store up to two days’ worth of corn in a side bin and self-loads the corn with a low-energy electric auger. All you have to do is set the stove to the heating level you want and enjoy the radiant heat.

Burning corn contributes almost nothing to global warming if the corn is raised responsibly through “no-till” planting and organic fertilization. Like all plants, corn absorbs CO2 as it grows, and with this stove, the corn burns so efficiently that the net CO2 released is negligible. Moreover, corn is cheaper than natural gas–we’ll save more than $200 per winter–and it’s easily purchased even by big-city dwellers at outlying feed stores. And studies show U.S. farmers can grow ten times more corn than is needed to meet all of America’s energy needs.

Even after all these purchases, we still had enough money to tackle our last major source of emissions, heating our water. And here we got lucky. Our solar contractor stumbled across a used solar hot-water system and sold it to us installed for $1,000, and we were able to deduct 15 percent of the cost from our state income taxes. Thus, we closed out our expenditures at just over $7,500. The solar system “preheats” the water for our natural gas heater. On sunny days, we get as much help from solar as we can and then the gas burners kick in.

The bottom line

Except for a little natural gas to cook and heat our water on really cloudy days, plus the small portion of our electricity that still comes from our local utility, we now contribute nothing to global warming through home energy use. Plus, we’ve reduced our estimated CO2 contribution from 19,488 pounds per year to just under 2,010 pounds, a drop of almost 90 percent! If every household in the industrialized world were to make half of these changes, we would be well on our way to solving global warming.

We also do well by doing good. By conserving energy and switching to renewables, we save an estimated $578 each year. That’s $48.17 per month. Our monthly payment for the $7,500 loan is $87. That sum will quickly diminish as energy prices continue to rise. In ten years, when our loan is repaid, savings close to $1,000 per year will go straight into our pockets. For now, our total out-of-pocket expense is less than $39 per month.

You’d think that such an abrupt switch from fossil fuels entails some hidden sacrifices. But, actually, there are none. Yes, several times a week in the winter we have to reload the stove with corn, which takes about five minutes. Every two weeks we have to clean the stove, another fifteen minutes. And because the stove radiates heat, a room can only be warm if its door is left open. Other than this, our lives are essentially unchanged.

Except for one more thing. We now live with greater hope for our son’s future and that of the whole planet. If we can make such big changes so quickly and for so little money, the rest of the world can do the same.

–From Co-op America Quarterly’s “Green Energy Future” issue, (800) 584-7336,

­–Nate Albee

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