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Saving-energy tips: Do they really make a difference?

If you’re like me, you drive a fuel-efficient car, wash your clothes in cool water and live reluctantly with those curly-cue compact fluorescent light bulbs (I’ll get to light-bulb socialism in a minute) — but you wonder all along how much your puny contributions truly help save the planet from a carbon-driven fever.

Now comes a study speaking to that question.

By following 17 well-known energy saving tips, U.S. households could collectively curb the nation’s annual carbon emissions by 7.4 percent 10 years from now, says the study by researchers at Michigan State and Vanderbilt universities and the University of Michigan. Their findings appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The annual savings, 123 million metric tons of carbon, would top the total national emission of France, the researchers say. It would exceed all emissions from three big industries: petroleum refining, iron/steel and aluminum.  

Call it the “behavioral wedge” in the struggle to reduce carbon emissions. The study’s authors claim that it would be a far faster and cheaper strategy than other changes government officials are contemplating.

Now comes my journalistic skepticism.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won applause in many conservative circles for introducing legislation this year to restore our light-bulb freedom and end the “voodoo, nonsense, hokum . . . hoax,” claims about human causes of global warming. I still see a lot of gas hogs on the streets. And I don’t see clothes lines coming back in any big way in my neighborhood.

How are you going to pull enough Americans together to pull off this savings?

The researchers say they looked into the “plasticity” of our behavior on carbon-curbing measures and factored in reluctance from naysayers.

You can judge for yourself how likely we are to do this together. Here are the 17 household energy savers they analyzed:

  • Weatherization
  • Efficient heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment
  • Low-flow showerheads
  • Efficient water heater
  • Efficient appliances
  • Low rolling resistance tires
  • Fuel-efficient vehicle
  • Change air filters on furnace and other equipment
  • Tune up AC
  • Routine auto maintenance
  • Lower laundry temperature
  • Lower water heater temperature
  • Adjust standby electricity
  • Set back thermostat
  • Line dry clothes
  • Driving behavior (honor speed limits)
  • Carpooling and trip changing

The speed-limit thing alone makes me skeptical. With all due respect to the State Patrol, very few drivers seem to honor the limits in Minnesota.

What do you think?

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/02/2009 - 08:58 am.

    I’m about halfway there. In fact, my wife and I have been on a cable acommunity news program and in several articles for our energy-saving lifestyles. Still got to install that water-saving showerhead — still in the box.

    Drove to the airport today on E85. That counts, too.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2009 - 09:02 am.

    My wife and I have already done most of the thing on this list without any adverse effects on our lifestyle. We purchased energy efficient washer and dryer, low flow shower heads, fuel efficient cars etc. We’ll be replacing a drafty bay window with a tax credited new one a few weeks. The only place we fall down is on line drying clothes and speed limits. I’m not sure you really get that more efficiency at slower speed with modern four cylinder engines frankly. I know back in the day 55mph made a huge difference. But we still got 37 mph with our 98 Honda Civic when we drove to Chicago a couple years agon, and we do even better with our new 2009 model. Line drying just doesn’t work well in the winter in MN. For some reason the clothes get really stiff like their frozen or something.

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/02/2009 - 12:44 pm.

    E85 does not count. In fact, it probably counteracts all the other things you do.

  4. Submitted by Ed Stych on 11/02/2009 - 02:18 pm.

    I agree, E85 doesn’t count. Here’s an interesting article on biofuels:

    Well, let’s knock at LEAST two off the list of 17. I bet it’s less than 5 percent of Americans who are willing to drive the speed limit and dry their clothes on a line. Sharon, do you drive the speed limit?

    I’m also not a big fan of the new light bulbs. Not enough light. They take a while to warm up. They have mercury in them. I might have to make special efforts to recycle them. But just like I’m confident about clothes lines and speed limits above, I’m also confident that industry will provide us with better, safer light bulbs in the future.

  5. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 11/02/2009 - 04:08 pm.

    Ed, I’ll confess to this much: Got my last speeding ticket in 2004 when I was rushing to cover a political rally for George W. Bush.(I made it to the rally just minutes before the secret service closed the press entrance.)
    Beyond that, I’m mum on the speeding question.
    I agree completely with your observation that we will see better bulbs — better almost everything that uses energy — in the future.

  6. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/03/2009 - 07:14 am.

    I see that a number of these energy savers are auto related, and I can get on board with the ones that improve safety, but not those that sacrifice safety. Obeying speed limits, carpooling, and routine auto maintenance are all good and promote safety.

    Lower rolling resistance tires? That sounds like driving on ice. Without friction, you increase breaking distance; bad idea. Fuel efficient cars are not as safe as the larger alternatives. I drive my car (clunker list) about 8000 miles per year; I use less fuel per year than several people I know who drive a Prius. I feel my family is safer in a larger car.

    If we were really concerned about our carbon footprint, would we choose to live in this climate? I don’t think so.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/03/2009 - 09:59 am.

    I think I’ll clarify, I had earlier posted a comment questioning the increased efficiency of slower speeds, I wasn’t advocating speeding or violating the speed limits. I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket in 25 years, I get along just fine with the existing speed limits. Logically, and we’ve been there before, one could argue that lowering the speed limits might save energy. While I support the idea of obeying speed limits, I’m not sure lowering them would be a good idea, but that’s not the question.

  8. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/03/2009 - 02:03 pm.

    But Ms. Schmickle’s question is, can personal energy saving make a difference, and the answer is, of course not (as 7.4% in ten years would seem to suggest). We are destroying our habitat because our (global) economy is premised on always-increasing consumption of (and service demands on) our environment. Our economy, and the mythologies that support it, are framed this way because that’s how those with wealth get more of it. Civilization could survive only if that frame changed, well-being were delinked from consumption level, and economic activity (entropy creation) were reduced by an order of magnitude. However, doing this (which incidentally would make us all alot happier as well), would cause people with a whole lot of wealth to have not as much wealth; so we are told to focus on low-flow showerheads. Yes, we should save energy. As is said, the true indication of a person’s moral fibre is what he/she does when no one is looking. Minimizing one’s footprint should be done because it is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean household energy saving will make a difference while massively overbuilt office buildings burn lights night and day, the rain forest is being slashed and burned, bottled water is plowed across the ocean on container ships, and every google search (I am told) consumes energy sufficient to boil two cups of water.

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2009 - 09:15 am.

    The google searches do not directly consume the energy, but the operations of the google corporation have a carbon footprint that can be divided by the total searches to reach a meaningless energy consumption per search quotient. Say I work for a company as a manager, and I spend a fourth of my day motivating and encouraging my employees. Knowing the carbon footprint of my company, and what percentage of the total workforce I represent, I could calculate that every time I encourage an employee, I consume the energy sufficient to boil a liter of water.

  10. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/04/2009 - 09:49 am.

    Mr. Rose, thank you for the explanation. It would appear to reinforce my point. That is, we cannot significantly reduce google’s energy consumption thru personal behavior (limiting google searches) because the energy consumption from search activity is marginal to the “fixed” energy use of the google enterprise itself. The problem is the behemoth that is a world economic system premised on ever-increasing economic activity.

  11. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2009 - 10:37 am.

    Chuck: Correct; explanation does support your point. If people did fewer searches, the energy consumption per search would increase. This would be true until the demand for searches fell to the point that google would decide to close or scale down a data center.

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