Friday, December 29, 2006

End of the year recollection

Energy matters. It is hard to imagine that only eight years ago, energy was cheap (under $16/bbl) and falling in price due to international economic and currency shocks in Russia, Latin America, and Asia. Oil reached a low of $12/bbl in 1999. Growth in technology especially the Internet, was the only “real” measure of value. I, like others, scoffed at investments in energy utilities as so last century…how quickly times have changed.

I have focused on renewable energy and politics in the last year. The challenges of making changes in both are simply overwhelming when taken en masse. But there is room for hope (and action) in both spheres when you break things down and look issue by issue. As always I’ve done an incredible amount of reading, thinking, idea generation, and have taken a number of actions this year—actions taken is what is different this year for me.

Politically I volunteered with Move-On for at least 40 hours of phone calls to mobilize voters in the last 6 weeks of the election. Throughout the year I also made more (small) contributions to candidates that I agree with than in past elections. I’d guess that I gave $200 (total) to several candidates (in a mid-term) vs. maybe $50 two years ago and nothing before that. This political activism has caused me to get more involved (time wise) in other things like the Chicago chapters of Engineers-Without-Borders (a wonderful concept—I hope it can live up to its potential) and the Sierra Club.

It is a curious thing to find myself becoming an activist…but I guess the whole global climate crisis is turning into what the nuclear arms race was for the boomers (yeah my last overtly political act was marching in the Nuclear Freeze marches of the early eighties). And speaking of…Al Gore’s movie had a definite impact in moving the past the pseudo-false-debate about is it happening, to what can be done. This year, I’ve increased the amount of recycling; mostly paper, aluminum and plastic (and I’ve started buying & using more products with high recycled content like paper towels, TP and printer paper) and I am using rechargeable batteries.

I invested in a number of offset programs to mitigate climate change this year. I bought a Terrapass (~$30/yr) to offset the CO2 produced from my driving. I also bought Native Energy wind power ($4/mth) offsets to offset 400 kWh/month of my electricity use (which I’m pleased to note was only ~300 kWh for my apartment in November—although I don’t know what it was in prior periods). I offset the CO2 from my air & land travel to the Solar Power 2006 conference(~$35). Lastly I bought a months supply (750kWh) of wind offsets ($15/ea) for each of my seven siblings from Renewable Choice Energy for Christmas, as subtle nudge and awareness raising measure. All told just over $200 for the various CO2 offsets.

I also changed about 150 light bulbs to CFLs (swirl bulbs) this year, 85% were at my parents vacation house and the siblings cabins/casitas. I gave a few CFLs to my siblings to try out in their homes (while I know that some have tried them, others I’m not sure about). I’ve given away (freecycled in fact) my 300W halogen lamp/heater and changed five of the six 40W bulbs in my main chandelier light to 7W CFLs (changing the sixth lamp makes my dimmer switch buzz…something that I suspect is bad for the wiring in my 80 year old building). Anyway I’m saving 165W/hr for ~ 6 hours a day (maybe 10 in these dark days of winter) which adds up to a cool 1kWh per day for my chandelier and up to 2kWh for ditching the halogen lamp. Times 365 days in a year and I think I’m using almost 1,000kWh (aka 1 MWh) less energy to illuminate my abode this year. I’ve become much better about switching off lights that are not in use too.

I helped my parents invest in a solar water heater for heating the hot water at their vacation house. Although this was the gloomiest Christmas (but mild) weekend in years, we didn’t get much output from the solar heater (it went back to heating water the day after Christmas). I hope to compare the last 6 months of energy bills soon to see if I can determine the effect of the solar water heater and the CFLs (although since its been a mild winter this may take work to tease out the various effects).

And finally and possibly most significantly, I filed a patent application for a solar panel design that uses 30% less silicon (and is therefore ~15% cheaper) than the standard solar panel design.


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