On personal environmentalism: trying not to tilt at wind turbines

Another Earth Day has come and gone, and I'm still stuck windmill-deep in what is truly a modern dilemma. I want to be more energy efficient and reduce my Bozo-sized carbon footprint. I want to save money on my energy bill each month, which, due to price increases has gotten so big that I segregate it along with my 401(k) statement and wait for a moment of intestinal strength to take a peek. But honestly, I don't know what to do next. I'm frozen with indecision over what kind of green technology to invest in that will not become an obsolete dinosaur or object of derision by the time I'm through paying for it.

This quandary reminds me of that Sophie's Choice of the early 1980s: Beta or VHS. Choose wrong and the world will leave you behind.

My husband and I own a wood house built in 1925. We have already changed every lightbulb in the house to compact fluorescents. In the hot Florida summers we keep our thermostat set at 80 degrees, letting ceiling fans keep us cool. We have installed natural gas for cooking and water heating. Our attic is fully insulated.

Two years ago we had an energy audit done by our utility company to determine just how airtight our home was. I remember the guy in charge using the word "sieve" once or twice. Apparently, we were air conditioning the neighborhood.

After that we patched the leaky ducts and weatherstripped all our windows and doors. We also recently replaced a broken dishwasher and refrigerator with energy efficient models.

So there you have it. We have reduced our energy consumption and taken all the common sense conservation actions that don't cost a fortune. But we're still using way more energy than we should and our electric bills are bigger than a car payment. So what's next? How does an environmentally concerned (toting my own shopping bags to the grocery store, thank you very much), yet thrifty gal like me proceed?

In calling around to experts and businesses, here was some of the advice:

• Change out those 1925 single-pane windows with spectrally selective Low-E glass with argon-gas fill that will sharply reduce the heat flowing through the glass.

• Forget changing your windows. It costs more energy to create new windows and to landfill the old ones than you'll save in increased efficiency, particularly since your wood windows don't conduct heat and are now weatherstripped.

• Buy a new central air conditioning system with a high SEER or cooling efficiency rating.

• Don't invest in a new cooling and heating system that relies on fossil fuels. Consider the benefits of geothermal, which takes advantage of the fact that a couple of yards below the surface of the earth it is a steady 72 degrees. It might cost three or four times what a conventional system does, but you would be using renewable energy for climate control.

Other sundry ideas included: Installing a photovoltaic attic fan, coating my current windows with a heat repelling film and painting my shingled roof white, if that's possible.

Of course the mother of all environmentally sensitive options is lining my roof with a photovoltaic array. The expense is astronomical but what intrepid virtue, what green rectitude.

But then Colleen Ahern-Hettich, director of the Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College, told me, "Do you realize how much greenhouse gases go into creating solar panels?" She suggested that a coming technology is a remarkably generative 3-foot-long wind turbine that mounts on the side of building and take advantage of the updraft.

I feel like this is a Tesla versus Edison moment. Will there be an obvious best option soon? Will it be solar, geothermal, wind or something else? And what should we do now to be responsible but not suckers?

Earth Day 2009 may have been the most confusing one on record. It's no longer a matter of just recycling newspapers and shutting the water while brushing your teeth. There are big, expensive, climate-impacting decisions to make about every kilowatt hour. And I'm totally unqualified to make them.

On personal environmentalism: trying not to tilt at wind turbines 04/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 9:36am]

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