Since November's election, I've taken a hard look at how I live, and instead of wallowing in helplessness and despair, I've tried to implement positive actions—particularly as concerns the environment. My guiding philosophy is that doing something is always better than doing nothing, and a lot of people doing something will matter. We can't depend on our political leadership to save us. Nor—even in the best of circumstances—should we.
What has that meant? Well, in nine months' time, I went from being a person whose chief act of environmentalism was to roll the recycling out to the curb every two weeks to a person who is making a real and daily effort to live more sustainably. I'm not perfect, but I'm trying, and I want to see “trying” get more credit.
Here's what I've discovered about sustainable living: It will cost you 1) money; 2) time; or 3) luxury. Or some combination, or all three. There are meaningful returns, of course! The most meaningful return for me is the hope that I'm doing things that will make my children's lives better. But aside from the psychological feel-good stuff, there are benefits to your health, to your quality of life (better food, better community), and—in some cases—to your finances, at least in the long term.
So here are the things we've done, are trying to do, and hope to do.
Changes that require a significant up-front investment
Even with the 30% tax credit, this is a big investment. Our 8.28 KW array (23 Sunpower-brand panels) cost us $32,300 up front; we should get $9690 of that back as a rebate when we file our 2017 taxes, for a total cost of $22,610.
Here’s the thing, though: solar panels are an investment; unlike a car, they gain value over time, as energy costs rise. And there are financing options that can mean you have less out-of-pocket cost than it might at first seem. My husband and I considered various solar loans with 15- and 20-year repayment options before ultimately financing the panels with a home equity line of credit, which we selected mostly because financing with our mortgaging institution seemed like the most flexible and stable approach.
We’ve been generating a little over $50 a month worth of power. Our system is net-metered—whatever energy we produce “rolls back” our bill kWh for kWh—and I base that figure on the cost of kWh through Duke Energy in North Carolina, 9.3457 cents. The average rate in the US is 12 cents a kWh, so the savings may be greater elsewhere. It’s also a given that electricity costs will continue to rise, so the savings will get greater with time. (The panels will lose some of their efficiency with time, too, but these panels have a 25-year warranty.)
So far, solar has covered about 60% of our power needs. Keep in mind that this has all been during the summer months in the south, when we run the air conditioner (though more on that in a moment), and it has been since we purchased an all-electric car (more on that momentarily, too). I expect our overall average for the year to hit closer to 75%--maybe better once we have a tree in our backyard pruned so that the panels get less shading in the mid-afternoon.
I’ve written in detail about our Chevy Bolt on my blog (see navigation at top of page). We paid about $39,000 for the Bolt and will get a $7500 tax rebate, bringing the total to $31,500, which we covered via a trade-in and a 2.69% interest rate loan.
Not cheap, then, and not an easy choice to make, seeing as how we traded in a paid-for car to take on a new debt. However, aside from the good feels of knowing we can operate one of our family cars via sunlight, we are also saving money on gas. I crunched some numbers on my blog post about the Bolt, but here are some updated ones. The average cost of gas in NC has gone up to $2.552 a gallon. Our vehicle’s lifetime efficiency, according to MyChevy app, is 3.5 mi/kWh. There are 7,570 miles on our odometer. The cost to operate the car based on NC electrical rates of 9.3457 cents/kWh, then, is 2.6702 cents a mile. The cost to operate our Nissan Cube—our current second car; the difference would be starker if I compared the numbers to our trade-in, a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo—is 8.73 cents a mile.
“Fuel” costs for 7570 miles:
Nissan Cube (average 30 miles/gallon): $660.86
Chevy Bolt: $202.134
In fairness, this cost for the Bolt assumes we’re doing all of our charging at home. When we’ve taken road trips, we’ve had to spend significantly more (about the cost of gas) to charge. However—on the other hand—we’ve also been able to charge for free, or very little cost, at malls, hotels, and our Airbnb. So my guess is that the total bill averages out, or comes close.
Total savings in fuel: $458.72. Since the beginning of May! That’s almost $92 a month, which offsets by a not-so-shabby margin our $259 payment. We are also saving on standard maintenance costs associated with an internal combustion images, such as oil and filter changes, but I haven't yet crunched those numbers.
A NOTE ON THE ABOVE: We invested in solar panels and an electric car not just to use the technology and reap its benefits (small-scale and large) but because we wanted to invest in a renewable future; we wanted to cast a vote, in dollars, for the “market solution” politicians are always spouting. We are in a position financially to be able to do that. (That position is plain old middle class. Nothing more, nothing less.) I think those of us who can should.
We spent about $1800 to have 17.3 inches of insulation and a radiant barrier installed in our attic. This has helped noticeably during the summer months to keep the house—particularly the upstairs—cooler. We run the AC much less frequently than we used to.
REPLACEMENT WINDOWS WITH ARGON GAS
We put this off for a long time and took the step with some trepidation, because our 1930s house had lovely old mullioned windows, and it felt like a loss to have them removed. Furthermore, it’s estimated that energy savings won’t result in the windows’ investment ever being recouped, at least in terms of prevented leakage.
However, the windows have made a big difference in our practices, which have resulted in energy savings greater than those achieved through prevented leakage. Now that our windows open and close easily and have screens (we didn’t have screens before), we tend to have them open as an alternative to running the AC.
Side note: If we’d had our builder haul away the windows, they would have been dumped into a construction waste landfill. Investigate other options. I was able to donate all of our windows to a local couple who refurbish them for sale as home décor.
Changes that require a small investment
WINDOW UNIT AC’S
Instead of running our central HVAC system, we have spent much of the summer using small window units (at a cost of about $100 each) in our upstairs bedrooms while sleeping. The rooms get much cooler than they were getting with the central system at about half the energy usage.
At about $200, you can get a smart thermostat that you can custom program or train to learn your habits. We haven’t been using ours (Nest brand) much yet because we’ve been avoiding use of the HVAC system, but I expect it will get more of a workout when temperatures cool and we depend on gas heating.
LED LIGHT BULBS
You’ve probably heard about the savings to be gained by switching from fluorescent or CFL bulbs to LEDS. What you may not know is that you might be able to get your hands on some bulbs for free. My provider, Duke Energy, will send qualifying customers 15 free LED bulbs upon request—no shipping costs. I’ve gotten my box, so I can vouch. Check with your power company; they might have a similar program.
*And while we’re talking about what your power company might do for you, I encourage you to go to your provider’s website and peruse their energy policies and incentives. Duke Energy offers discounting to customers who are willing to have a governor put on their HVAC units, so that Duke has the option of shutting down the HVAC during certain abbreviated peak use windows. We haven’t done this simply because we’re policing our own consumption so rigorously.
I didn’t cloth diaper my older child. I didn’t think I would be able to figure it out, having seen better, more environmentally conscious people than myself give up and switch to Pampers (or Honest). I didn’t want to make an expensive investment only to realize I couldn’t pull it off, and I worried that our daycare center wouldn’t be able to easily accommodate their use.
Guess what? IT’S NOT THAT HARD. First off, buy the diapers used. Get over your fear of having your child’s precious bum nestled where another child’s precious bum once pooped. Not only are used cloth diapers cheaper, and not only are they better for the environment, but they are more absorbent than brand-new diapers.
As for the day-to-day of it, I don’t find that it’s too difficult to run two loads of wash a week, hang-dry them (takes 10 or 15 minutes), and put them in a drawer. I feel like my husband and I spent that amount of time or more making diaper runs to Target.
Cheap (but time-consuming) changes
For a long time I didn’t bother to compost, because I wasn’t a gardener—what would I need compost for? I’m still no gardener (outside a few pots of scraggly herbs), but I compost because I want to limit my household’s waste stream and do my small part to reduce methane emissions at landfills.
We bought a compost tumbler, but you don’t have to. We also have a bin that my husband assembled from cast-off pieces of wood. If you’re intimidated about getting the compost “recipe” right, my advice would be to not overthink it. We throw most of our food scraps (I put leftover meat in the garbage disposal; I give large bones to the neighbor’s dog, when I can, and leave small bones out in the yard for other critters to make off with), small bits of yard waste, food-stained cardboard, and paper towels into the compost. We have a totally gross stew now that is roiling with soldier fly maggots—turns out they’re a good thing! They break all of that waste down and keep the smell to a minimum. (And if you’re worried about compost stench, I can tell you it’s much less offensive than the stink of your garbage cans.)
Your clothes dryer is, after your HVAC system, probably your house’s biggest energy hog. We hang-dry what laundry we can. We bought a clothesline tree for the backyard, but most of what we hang goes on the cheap little line my husband assembled in our upstairs hallway, close to our laundry room. Most clothes do fine on it. Towels and denim get crunchy. A short air-only tumble in the dryer will soften them.
DEVELOPING BETTER HABITS
I try to always have a travel coffee mug on hand because I know I’m probably going to want to buy coffee at some point in the day.
I also try to keep a water bottle or container on hand so that I can avoid buying bottled water or other beverages.
If I want a tea or a fountain drink from a place with disposable containers, I’ll bring my outside cup, alert the person checking me out to the fact I’m using it, and pay as I always would. Does the guy at Wendy’s give you a weird look when you do that? Yes, he does. Who cares?
I do what they always told you to do when you were in elementary school: I turn off lights when I leave rooms. I don’t run fans when I’m not in a room. I unplug, when I can, energy “vampires” such as unused phone and computer chargers.
When I’m able to walk instead of drive, I walk. This has been complicated since I’ve had children—I no longer have the time I did to walk the mile to and from work, especially when I factor in the daycare drop-off—but we’re lucky to live in a neighborhood close to restaurants and a grocery store, and we frequent these local businesses.
Changes that might cost you some luxury
BUY USED—AND LOCAL—WHEN YOU CAN
If you buy from your local secondhand shop, or via Craiglist or a yard sale (online or actual), you are saving materials, packaging, and shipping costs, and you’re keeping an item out of a landfill. I also think it’s more fun to shop secondhand.
On a related note, before you throw something in the garbage, consider donating it or putting it up as “free” on Craigslist. I was able to give away a large stained area rug to a person who was very happy to get it and who hauled it off my property, for use in a basement.
When I do buy new items, I try when possible to purchase from companies with sustainable and ethical production practices. I buy American when I can—but that’s really hard and near-impossible with some items (such as shoes and electronics).
LIMIT YOUR AIR TRAVEL
I used to see air travel as a kind of efficient public transit. (In other news, I used to be kind of an idiot.) It’s not. It’s one of the worst causes of pollution there is. And what’s mystifying about it is how idiotic we all seem to be on the subject, especially those of us who otherwise consider ourselves to be good, hybrid-driving liberals with the right stances on the environment and the risks of climate change.
My personal pledge is to not fly unless it’s necessary. What’s “necessary”? Well, I made a decision in May to fly to New York because I thought it was important to the success of my forthcoming book to attend BEA. My book’s success is tied to my livelihood, and my livelihood is tied to my children’s well-being. I purchased an excess of carbon offsets and, with some misgivings, did it.
A situation like that may arise again. Or if I had a family emergency, I would fly home. But I won’t fly for pleasure—to go on a vacation or to visit a friend. If I do have to fly, I’ll purchase solar-based carbon offsets. It makes me sad to commit to this, because some of my best experiences have involved international travel; I like to see new places, get to know new people, experience different cultures. But more than that, I want those places to endure, and I want my children to be able to see them someday, when (I hope) technology advances enough to make flying “clean” possible.
Traveling is perceived as virtuous, especially among the academic and artistic sets. We need to question that assumption. We need to realize that preserving these places and cultures we admire might require that we give up zipping over to see them whenever we wish. Take the money and put it elsewhere. (See above for some options.)
LIMIT YOUR MEAT CONSUMPTION
Another tough one. I love meat.
I think the environmental impact of meat production has been downplayed in comparison to the moral problem of eating animals. It comes across as a kind of sentimental or philosophical activism rather than a profoundly practical one. The simple fact is most factory meat operations have terrible environmental impact and unsustainable practices. Not eating meat is a simple way to shrink your carbon footprint; after that, eating less meat, and meat from local small-scale farmers, is the way to go. Again, though, doing something is better than doing nothing. As Michael Pollan suggests, eliminating meat from one meal a day has an impact. (I also try to purchase sustainably fished seafood. The fact that these meats and fishes are more expensive are further encouragement to eat less of them.
RECONSIDER YOUR INVESTMENT PORTFOLIO
My investment company, TIAA-CREF, offers a Social Choice investment portfolio that focuses on (comparatively) socially and environmentally responsible companies such as Microsoft Corporation and Alphabet Inc. Switching to the Social Choice option, for me, was the matter of a five-minute phone call.
Other changes we’d like to make
ON-DEMAND WATER HEATING
We have gas-heated water where we live, and so the best energy-saving measure we can make here is to replace our tank-style water heater with on-demand heating.
We’re hoping to have a wood-burning stove insert installed in our fireplace, so we can heat our house in the cooler months with renewable wood.
This is a relatively cheap fix, but we’ve been slow to move on it—mostly because our HVAC guy retired and we haven’t found someone to replace him.
If you have sustainability practices you’d like to share, or questions for me about any of the above, please feel free to contact me.