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Reducing Power Consumption, Reducing Pollution
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by Former State Senator Gerald W. Winegrad | 2006

Former State Senator Gerald Winegrad discusses reducing power consumption and reducing pollution

The recent utility rate increases give an added impetus for consumers to cut back on electrical energy use. The oft-quoted figure of a 72% average increase for BGE’s 1.2 million residential customers is a 94% increase in the pure cost of each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity for summer use, and an astounding increase of 157% for winter usage. For Sierra Club members and all concerned with the environment, energy conservation is the most critical way to better protect the environment.

While speaking with Maryland Chapter Chair Betsy Johnson on a hot summer day in Annapolis, we discussed electrical consumption and home energy use. A heat wave in August brought record electrical consumption in the region, taxing the power system. These peak periods cause the most polluting and inefficient power plants to operate, producing even more pollution per kWh. I mentioned how little electricity my wife and I use in our home, and Betsy asked me to write this article.

$571 Powers 1,730 Square Feet

Our 1988 two-story home in Annapolis is 1,730 sq. ft. It is an all-electric home, heated and cooled by a heat pump. We frequently have family and friends over, some spending the night. Our total electricity cost for this past year was $571, plus $82 deferred under the higher BGE rates, for a total of 7,099 kWh. The U.S. average cost for home energy use is about $1,900 a year. Using an Energy Star calculator, our energy use is more efficient than 97.5% of comparable households. How do we do it without the installation of solar panels or a wood stove?

The Power Hogs

First, the greatest use of electrical energy in the home is for heating and cooling, accounting for 50% or more. When our old heat pump was dying, we replaced it with a high SEER-rated Energy Star heat pump. We have it maintained and regularly change furnace filters. I insulated the pipes from the heat pump going into the house and under the house in the crawl space. We don’t run the heat pump unless absolutely necessary. We keep the heat and a/c off from about Labor Day to mid-November, and from mid-April until July. In cold weather, we wear sweaters and keep the drapes and shades open during the day to allow the sun in, closing them at night. In warmer weather, we close the drapes and shades during the day, leave all windows open, and use fans where we cook, eat, and sleep, turned on only when we are present in that room. We use plastic register covers to direct air flow away from the drapes and into the room.

Our heat is always set at 60-62, and at 64 when guests arrive. Our a/c is never set lower than 80. We have replaced energy inefficient windows and sliding doors with high energy efficient windows and sliders. If we are out of the house for eight hours or more on very cold or hot days, we keep the thermostat at lower or higher levels than normal. When away for three days or more, we turn off all lights, the hot water heater, all clocks, DVD players, etc., and never leave the a/c on. If necessary, we keep the heat at 50 to prevent freezing.

Energy Saver Switches

We are among the 225,000 of BGE’s 1.2 million customers who participate in a program in which energy saver switches are connected to central air conditioners and water heaters. During periods of high demand for electricity, a radio signal activates the energy saver switch to cycle the compressor or water heater on and off in 15-minute intervals. Cycling of the switch can be activated any time throughout the year, but typically occurs in the summer months between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. I have never noticed this occurring and it saves us $15 a month, typically $60 annually, and prevents the most polluting power plants from having to crank out juice. It costs nothing to hook-up.

Every house needs to be properly insulated and to have cracks sealed. Good attic insulation, good windows, storm doors, and electrical socket insulators are all important and these all are in place in our home. We rarely turn on the kitchen or bathroom air ventilators as they can suck out a lot of heat or a/c. I close the fireplace flue damper in winter and open it in summer. We rarely use the fireplace.

Choosing and Using Major Applicances

The hot water heater is the next major user of energy. I have a thermal blanket on the water heater, insulation around the pipes, and set the water temperature at 120 degrees F. I installed flow restrictors on all faucets and water conservation shower heads. We have an Energy Star high efficiency refrigerator and always keep the lowest temperature settings necessary for the freezer and refrigerator. We try not to leave the door open very long and keep the coils clean from dust accumulation. We also replaced the old dishwasher with an Energy Star high efficiency model, although I prefer to wash dishes by hand. My wife uses it sparingly and with full loads. We also replaced a dryer with a more efficient model and use it only with full loads, cleaning the lint filter with each use. We use only cold water in the washing machine.

We have replaced nearly all lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs (about $1.50 each at discount houses) and never leave lights on when we are not in a room. Home computers now use 9%-10% of all energy in a home and many people leave them on 24/7. I always turn my computer off when not in use and also turn off the power bar to which it is connected.

We recycle more than 75% of household waste, including yard waste. I average only 6,000 miles a year in my used fuel-efficient vehicle, and carpool and use public transit.

Saving and Stewardship

Why do we conserve? Of course, nearly all of the measures we have taken save money, but ethically, as good stewards of the Earth, we need to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels.

As Sierra Club members we all need to set an example in energy conservation and efficiency in our own living habits and conserve energy.

Plugging into Coal

Remember, 57% of the electrical supply we are using comes from the most dangerous and dirty fuel on Earth–coal. Another 34% comes from nuclear energy, while 1.5% comes from oil. Only 1.8% comes from renewables, mostly from hydro (dams) and burning solid waste. I am a strong supporter of wind energy and as electrical demand grows, the importance and necessity of energy conservation and shifting from fossil-fueled electrical generation to renewable energy becomes paramount. But at least 94 large, new coal-fired electric power plants with the capacity to power 62 million American homes, are now planned across 36 states. These new plants would add another 20% to the U.S.’s current coal-generating capacity.

Pollution Generating Plants

Electrical generating power plants produced 36% of the carbon dioxide (global warming), 68% of the sulfur dioxide, 38% of the nitrogen oxide, and 23% of toxic heavy metals in the U.S. Nearly 48 tons of mercury are emitted each year by coal burning power plants, more than 40% of all human-released mercury. One of ten women of childbearing age have mercury levels high enough to damage their babies’ brains. Mercury has contaminated our state fish, the rockfish, and human consumption advisories exist for this fish throughout the Bay.

Roughly 700 premature deaths, 30,000 asthma attacks, and 400 pediatric emergency room visits per year are linked to fine particulate pollution from six of the seven power plants covered by the Healthy Air Act enacted in Maryland in 2006 (Dr. Jonathan Levy, Harvard School of Public Health).

Power plant combustion is also a major contributor of one of the key pollutants affecting the Bay, the nutrient nitrogen. Together with vehicle exhausts, power plants and other air emissions contribute as much as 33% of the total nitrogen to the bay system, creating dead zones.

Each time you turn on your heat or a/c or leave a light on, think global warming, acid rain, mercury contamination, nitrogen pollution of the Bay, massive forest and stream destruction, and human sickness and deaths.    n


Gerald W. Winegrad is a long-time Sierra Club member and served in the State Legislature from 1978-1995, the latter 12 years as a Senator where he championed environmental causes.

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