Sunday, January 2, 2011

Renewable Energy Actually Cheaper Than Dirty Energy

It's Jan 1 and I finally decided to study electricity rates having heard for months about the PECO rate caps coming off. We've purchased PECOWind for years, choosing to pay an additional 2.54c per kWh for 100% wind, which ended up costing us about $86 per year. The plus to paying this much more is that we got to take over 5000 lbs (or 2.3 tonnes) off our household's carbon footprint, which we'd still like to do in 2011.

On 12/27, Andrew Maykuth's article in the Inquirer titled Choosing Renewable Energy can now Save Money as well as Power, caught my attention. Highlights were:
  • Of the 19 electricity providers, only 7 offer a Renewable Energy Option

  • Of these 7, only 2 offer fixed 1-year pricing. One of them is The Energy Cooperative, a Philadelphia co-op since 1979
You can go to PAPowerswitch, a website by the PA Public Utility Commission, type in your zip code, and see all of the electricity suppliers for your region.

With the rate caps off, we need to compare not only the much-touted Generation & Transmission Charges but also the charges for Renewable Energy options.
  • PECO's price to compare, from dirty energy sources: coal and nuclear....9.92 cents per kWh
  • above plus 2.54 cents per kWh for PECOWind....12.46 cents per kWh
  • Viridian's "pure wind"....10.79 cents per kWh
  • The Energy Cooperative ("100% green; 87% hydro; 10% wind; 3% solar")....9.78 cents per kWh
  • BlueStar Energy Solutions "pure wind"....9.35 cents per kWh
Blue Star still comes out with the best rate for clean energy; it and the Energy Coop are still cheaper than PECO's "dirty" rate, so on a money-bottom line basis there is every reason for EVERY PECO user to switch to one of those two!

Reasons for choosing The Energy Cooperative = locally based; member owned.

Reasons for choosing Blue Star = even cheaper than The Energy Cooperative; no annual membership; fully wind (if you feel wind is cleaner than hydro, and more of an "additive" renewable resource). Note: "additive" means, that as more people buy into a particular renewable source, the Market will create MORE of that resource (more windmills erected, more solar panels installed, more hydro dams built, etc.) If it is non-additive, that means the supplier is simply yanking an already existing resource from somewhere else on the grid and appropriating it; no net shifting away from dirty sources is done.

I was asked... Is there a fee? Yes, The Energy Cooperative charges $15 to become a member.

And how guaranteed are the rates? Their rates are fixed for 1 year. After which, or actually, anytime during the year, one can always return to PECO's arms at no additional cost.

And what service area is covered? The electricity deregulation is for all of Pennsylvania, not just Philadelphia, so, yes, even Cheltenham township in Montgomery County.

Sorry if this is all confusing. This is the first time that renewable energy is actually cheaper than dirty energy. Bottom line, I think EITHER Energy Coop or Blue Star is a fine choice, and if you've made one of them don't work too hard to second-guess yourself.

I've just switched to the Energy Co-op's EcoChoice100, lowering my bill
by about 20%, still supporting 100% renewables. DO get one or two
neighbors/friends to switch over as well!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ask the Green House Detectives

The Green House Detectives have been asked to write a regular column for the Weavers Way Shuttle. Here's a preview of what you'll see in the June '08 Shuttle.
--- Q. How can we keep our house cool and comfortable during our lovely Philadelphia summer, without breaking the bank and overheating the planet?
A. Fortunately the very same strategies that enable you to consume less energy also decrease your electricity usage and your ecological footprint. The most obvious efficiency is to cool as little of your house as you can get by comfortably. Use the lowest tech options first, and move to the higher energy-consuming solutions only in the extreme heat of Philadelphia summer. Recall that heat rises, so use lower floors more. Also keep in mind a lot of what makes Philadelphia uncomfortable is our high humidity, so focus on getting the moisture out of your home, not just cooling it.
Q. We can’t live without air conditioning - what are your recommendations?
A. This year’s minimum EER (energy efficiency ratio) for air conditioners has increased to 10. Also check for EnergyStar compliance, the government’s rating for the highest efficiency appliances. New models have thermostats, not just Low/Medium/High dials, for increased precision. If your window air conditioner is more than seven years old, upgrading it may be worth it; this can be checked with a Kill-a-Watt meter. Don’t forget to change the filters on your units. You can compare the efficiency of various models at the store or online. Portable AC units still need to be vented, and tend to be less efficient than semi-permanent window units. There’s no reason to run the AC if you’re not there, so watch that carefully. If you are on a predictable schedule, you can always put your AC on a timer so it starts cooling a bit ahead of your arrival.

Q. I can’t stand room air conditioners, plus I hate blocking my window views with them. Other ideas?
A. Think Casablanca – go with fans. Ceiling fans are attractive and effective. (They are reversible, so in winter you can have the warm air pulled downward, but nobody we know ever really bothers with this, since using a fan in winter seems kind of dumb.) Window fans with two directions do make a lot of sense. Install one in an upper floor window directed outward, so it pulls hot air out of your whole home. Turn it off at night or reverse the direction when it cools off. If you work in one location in your home, the most efficient fan is a little clamp-on unit that you can angle directly at yourself. Remember, it’s you who needs to feel cool, not the whole room.
Q. Our electricity bills are crazy high in summer, even with barely running the air conditioners. What’s up with that?
A. The Green House Detectives are taking a wild guess here: you have an ancient dehumidifier. Dehumidifiers run constantly and if yours is old, replace it! Not only is it likely to be circulating a lot of mold, but the efficiency standards have increased so much that a new EnergyStar unit will pay for itself in just a season or two. Here’s an alternative dehumidifier option – use a window unit AC in your basement. The water then drains out the window and you don’t have worry about piping to a floor drain. Air conditioners set to 75-80 degrees will be just as effective as a dehumidifier at pulling the moisture out of your house. If that surprises you, just think about defogging your car. Running the AC is the fastest way to do that. Of course this solution requires a basement window that can accommodate a window unit.
Q. What home upgrades should we think about to conserve energy?
A. Insulation, insulation, insulation! Most people think that insulation is important to keep your heating bills down. But just as insulation helps your home stay warm in winter, it helps your home stay cool in summer. One friend of ours added a ton of attic insulation to increase her winter heat conservation. The next summer she discovered she hardly ever needed her air conditioning!
Q. Anything else we should be doing on a daily basis to keep our place comfortable?
A. Be sure to close the windows and draw the blinds, drapes, and shades during the day. At night, open them up and let the cool air in. If you have windows that get serious sun beating in during the day, this is especially important. You might even consider upgrading those windows to coated double or triple panes. We’ve experimented with adding window film which is cut to size, but that’s one tedious job! Don’t run appliances during peak hours, and turn all your appliances and lights off when not in use. Not only does this save electricity, but since each running appliance generates some heat (notice this around your computer or TV?), you can avoid that as well. And for sure take advantage of the warm weather to hang your laundry instead of running an electric dryer, which consumes a lot of energy.

Q. Any old-fashioned low tech ideas we should know about?
A. Yes – ice cream cones.

Send your questions to info at

Image from

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day for all Species

I've always thought of Memorial Day as the official start of summer, only vaguely aware that it glorified war & militarism. Yesterday, was under our big tree out back pondering on the Meaning of Memorial Day and of lives lost in wars, including the one our civilization has waged against Nature & our Planet. Later in the day, discovered Rebecca's essay: Memorial Day for all Species, reminding us that honoring our soldiers "so easily slips in to glorifying militarism and war."

So today, "on Memorial Day, pause and remember the fallen sons and daughters of our country. Recognize that they were unique individuals, and irreplaceable in our human family. And then, pause and remember the Western Back Rhinoceros, the Golden Toad, the Caribbean Monk Seal, and the Laughing Owl. They too, were unique and irreplaceable to our earth family."

Thank you, Rebecca!!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Conservation, Efficiency, and Behavior: A Basic Analysis

Setting out to determine all the many ways of reducing one's household energy consumption is a daunting task. Our homes are constructed of complex, interlocking systems; the older our homes, the more mysterious they may seem. The many long lists of recommended improvements are general, not specific to one's own situation, and they are soooo long! Here is a simpler way to think about the project.
The two major organizing principles are ENERGY CONSERVATION and ENERGY EFFICIENCY. The third major impact is PERSONAL BEHAVIOR, because any systems in place are dependent to some degree on the way they are utilized. Individuals vary enormously in levels of commitment to decreasing their carbon footprint/energy use.

Energy Conservation refers to a home's temperature retention; in winter a home needs to be warmer than the outdoor temperature and in summer, cooler. All the home's surfaces - walls, windows, doors, ceiling, floor - together create the "home envelope". The tighter this envelope, the higher the level of conservation. Upgrades to the home's conserving abilities are generally one-time improvements which operate passively. Attic insulation, door sweeps, thermal pane windows, and the like help the envelope/barrier to retain winter's warmed air (heated by a furnace or boiler) and artificially cooled air in summer. In addition to infrastructure conservation upgrades (like tighter windows, wall and roof insulating, and air leak plugging), decorating choices can positively impact conservation. Insulated windows shades and curtains, insulating paint on walls, and thick carpets all help retain temperature, therefore consuming less energy to heat and cool. In winter, this translates to less gas or oil; in summer, less electricity. Conservation upgrades add to the comfort of your home, since they cut down on drafts and also on noise. In our local climate, it is our experience that with a better insulated home, one can get by with very little heating or cooling in spring and fall, our shoulder seasons.

Energy Efficiency refers to the amount of electricity required to run your appliances, devices, and lighting. In the old days of cheap electricity, this was rarely a concern. Over the past decade, government mandates for increased efficiency have resulted in significant efficiency improvements, allowing electronics to perform the same tasks using ever less energy. The goverment's EnergyStar rating is given to best-of-class products and covers most common household appliances. Of course increased efficiency can be offset by the proliferation of electronic devices and appliances present in an average household.
Older refrigerators, freezers, dehumidifiers are especially large consumers of electricity. Replacing them with newer models is recommended, especially since they run 24/7. Replacing old incandescent bulbs with "energy miser" CFL's is highly beneficial, more compelling since the aesthetics of CFL's have improved. With the rest of one's appliances, individual household use will vary enormously. (While replacing inefficient electrical appliances and lights with high efficiency models is a no-brainer, much of the electricity the average consumer uses is simply wasted because of personal habits of not turning out lights or turning off appliances. This is not, technically, an efficiency issue.)
It is important to note that in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of our electricity is generated by burning coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. Electricity generation needs to meet the maximum demand, hot summer days. Therefore even if you purchase wind power, it is still wise to increase your household energy efficiency to decrease overall demand, even if you personally are supplied by renewable energy.

Personal Behavior dictates how home energy is consumed, regardless of the level of energy conservation and efficiency. The homeowner determines the desired temperature and which appliances and devices are used. Programmable thermostats are a great technology, but are usually too difficult for average users to actually operate. Insulated curtains may be helpful, but only if you close them! When considering what upgrades to invest in, it is useful to also consider one's own personal style. Many systems can override human forgetfulness - programmable timers (that are simple to operate!), motion detector light switches which turn the lights off when not in use, and even remote thermostat controls. However, the average household will derive the biggest benefit from one-time passive improvements - the insulation in the attic just sits there, indefinitely, requiring no action or activity.
It is also important to consider that it is much cheaper to keep the people in the house warm, rather than heating all the air in the entire house. Treating yourself to high-quality thermal stockings and long-johns, buying a heated mattress pad, and adding a gas fireplace may go a lot further in making it comfortable to turn your thermostat down. Adding electric space heaters to the rooms you frequent, and leaving the others colder, is a common strategy. But all these activities will be ineffective if your heat is escaping through leaky windows and a poorly insulated roof. Hence the pyramid displayed: energy conservation is the highest priority, yielding the highest impact, in approaching the goal of reduced household energy consumption.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We're All in Hot Water When We Waste Energy!

Americans rarely connect their flowing hot water to their energy consumption. Like children (and probably more than a few adults) who think that meat comes from the supermarket, not from the steer, we all take heated water exceedingly for granted - hot water comes from the tap. In fact, unless you have a solar water heater - which fortunately is not as rare as in former days - or live in Iceland where thermal electricity fuels appliances, fossil fuel is consumed to keep our water hot. The water is being kept hot all the time, whether you use it or not. The controls to water heaters are not user friendly, and most of us avoid heading down to our basements unless there is a pressing need, so basically we're wasting a lot of energy heating water that sits around in a tank.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Design to inspire conservation

Meet Rocco Avallone, a senior industrial design student at nearby Philadelphia University. His senior thesis is all about presenting personal energy consumption to inspire conservation.

Rocco wants to present energy use in a way that'll inspire us all to be less wasteful. We talked about the Lights Out event in Sydney last March that resulted in a 10.2% reduction on the power grid, as well as the one in San Francisco last October and learnt of the upcoming one this March in major cities around the globe.

We began brain-storming on what would spark community buy-in - a web page with graphs? A street sign or a church steeple that changes color as our demand fluctuates? How can we feel that we're all on this low-carbon diet together? And that the actions each of us takes do make a difference?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Black Gold @ InterAct Theatre

Go see the World Premiere of Seth Rozin's play Black Gold at the InterAct Theatre. It made me laugh out loud and weep to think of what our 'leaders' will do to keep the cheap crude flowing, and what they'll consider as renewable energy.

It runs Jan 25 thru Feb 24, 2008.

A teaser about the play....
"Even in the wake of unprecedented tragedies like hurricane Katrina, America’s lower classes and inner cities continue to be largely ignored by the Federal government. In our superpower economy, driven largely by our investment in Middle-Eastern oil, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. But the world’s oil supply will be peaking sometime in the next 20 years, and our government offers little more than lip service toward the development of alternative energy sources…

What happens when Curtis Walker, an African American man living in Detroit’s inner-city, purchases an oil rig on eBay and taps into one of America’s largest oil reserves right under his own back yard? This hilarious vaudevillean take on the not-too-distant future chronicles
Walker’s discovery, as it precipitates a wild chain reaction that throws the world into turmoil, proving just how much America’s petroleum addiction keeps world events on edge. Will the newly-tapped resource lead to violence or prosperity? Will the poor get rich? Will the rich
get richer? Will America’s economy skyrocket? Will the Middle East move toward unprecedented peace or unimaginable chaos? Six actors play over 80 roles in this fast-paced, futuristic satire of class, race and greed in a country that will go to dangerous lengths to keep the cheap crude flowing."