What Do You Think?

New to the blog?  Start at the beginning and read about my two-week attempt to understand and reduce my energy consumption.

This is the first time we've tried a blog, and we'd love to hear what you thought of it.  Send feedback through our normal channels, or just comment on this entry let us know what did and didn't work for you. 

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Two Weeks Down, a Lifetime Ahead

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It was easy to take the stairs to the sixth floor of the building this morning. I'd love to say that my legs have grown accustomed to the climb, but it'd be more accurate to say that I was too busy thinking about what I'd say in this post to notice I was out of breath.

Over the past week, the changes that I made cut my home electricity use by 0.95 kWh/day (sixteen percent), and my gas use by 0.5 therms/day (about 14.6 kWh, or nine percent of my daily average). 

I can't say what I'd save over the course of a year, since energy use and energy saving strategies vary as the seasons change. But I'm surprised by how much I was able to reduce with relatively little effort.

I thought about ending with a post about all the power that we take for granted, the costs we incur just by living in a country with lit streets and plowed roads. But I'm feeling more upbeat than I thought I would be. So we'll end on that note, with the understanding that there's work to be done, in public and private.

My week has been a drop in the bucket, and after today no one else will see if I unplug my computer when I leave my desk or if I fling open my windows to heat the whole of New England.

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Simple Questions

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I like to go to colloquia. For those of you who don't live within the ivory tower, that means I like to attend university talks in which researchers describe their work and field questions. At best, I see a human light up as she describes the tiny part of the world that she's interrogated for days, months, or even years of her waking life.  At worst, the talk goes over my head and I learn more technical terms and methods.

I haven't found the time to attend as many talks since I left school. Even when I do make it out, I find that my appreciation for the event has shifted. Instead of watching the speaker and absorbing slides and graphs, I find myself looking around at the audience. Most of the attendees are researchers but a few are laymen, like me. I wonder what the other non-experts take away from the evening. I wonder if they also get lost in the jargon, and if they have questions that sound too simple to ask, like I do.

It was nearly a year ago that I heard someone pipe up with one of those humble questions that all of us should dare to ask. I was at a research talk on the use of biofuels as an alternative energy source. The talk was at MIT and the man who stood, half shouting from the audience to be heard, was older and still wearing his tan overcoat though we'd been in the warm lecture hall for more than an hour. I can't remember his exact words, but he said something like this:

"I know this is off topic, but there are a lot of smart people in this room, so I just wanted to ask... Why don't we use the energy from gyms to power stuff? It seems like such a waste."

That's where the memory fades. I'd like to say that they answered his question and pointed to health clubs that do just that and that they mentioned the considerable efforts that made stationary bike generators a power option for people in developing countries, but I don't remember.

As far as I know, the major obstacle to harnessing human energy is the same one that plagues plans to harness wind and wave power.  The potential for energy generation is there, but the infrastructure that could let us take advantage of it isn't in place yet.  We can build great fields of wind turbines, but if we can't get the power back to the grid, it doesn't help.

Of course, there's always the option to do it yourself, at a one-person scale. But I don't mean to discuss the practicality of using a gym as a generator. My mind is on the interaction between the public and science. Science and engineering, in my experience, are driven in part by stupid questions--No, no, I don't mean stupid questions. Simple questions. Like: Why does this work the way it does? Could this be better or more efficient? Could we make things easier for humans or easier on the environment?

Scientists ask these simple questions in complicated words that make the question easier to act upon. That's intimidating. I ask in simple words that make me sound like a child. But I feel that now is a time to ask those questions of science.

Not because scientists have been negligent. I fully believe that minds more suited to the task than mine have already devised solutions for some of our energy woes. Much of the technology that we need already exists. I don't know the half of it, and that's the trouble.

A new science building was erected on campus, right before I left college. It was a pretty building, but it didn't have any green qualities. When I asked why, I was told that cost was an issue and that the building committee hadn't been aware of all the options. The last part of that worries me. We, the average people, need to be familiar with the solutions already available, and there's no quicker way of learning about this world than asking brave, simple questions.

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Escalators, Elevators, or Stairs? Oh my!

I've been trapped in passcard protected stairwells, and for a few heart-pounding minutes in a slow elevator, but I've never been betrayed by an escalator... for obvious reasons.

Photo Credit: A-Digit/istockphoto                    
I like riding the escalator. I like watching the steps fold flat and feeling the wind in my hair. Besides, nothing beats an escalator for visibility.  Elevators are hidden behind doors, and stairs tucked away within fireproof stairwells. But the escalator? It's a different animal. People build around the escalator. It's the centerpiece of the mall, visible from a distance.

But when it comes to energy use, the escalator is shamefully bad.

A case study from one environmentally-minded motor control manufacturer--The Power Efficiency Corporation--suggested that an escalator operates at a rate of about four to six kilowatts. Multiply that by every hour of every day that the escalators run and you've quite a sum. 

From what I can see, the biggest trouble is that escalators don't care if you take the stairs.  Unlike elevators, which only come when they're called, escalators run constantly.

Elevators are better, but the characteristics that make them more efficient, like on-demand service to varying heights, also make it difficult to generalize about the energy use. So I cheated and set a rule of thumb according to what I can reasonably expect of myself. I'll take the stairs to the sixth floor (where I work) but the elevator to my friend's apartment (on the tenth floor of his building).

Recent efforts to create variable-speed escalators and efficient elevators that use regenerative breaking give me hope that one day soon I'll get to be guilt-free and lazy again.  Until then, I'll work on my calf muscles.

Edit: I messed up on the kilowatt, kilowatt-hour notation up above.  Fixed now. Thanks to

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Energy Sapping Screen Savers

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I meant to include this with the post on power settings

Your screen saver may be costing you energy. From EnergyStar:

Screen savers generally do not save energy. In fact, certain graphics-intensive screen savers can cause the computer to burn twice as much energy, and may actually prevent a computer from entering sleep mode.

Screen savers were originally developed to prevent the permanent etching of patterns on older monochrome monitors. Modern display screens do not suffer as much from this problem, but screen savers are still used for entertainment.

 If you want to use your screen saver in conjunction with monitor power management, set the screen saver "wait time" to less than the period of time after which the monitor enters sleep mode. If your screen saver appears but your monitor never enters sleep mode, your screen saver may be the culprit: try disabling it.

Your Mug and The Environment

On Thursday, I posted a link to a "guerrilla" sticker campaign that's drawing attention to the ways we absentmindedly waste paper products. As the day wore on I couldn't stop thinking about another common source of waste in the office: the disposable coffee cup.

image11.pngI used to think that ceramic mugs were automatically ecofriendly, but they're not. The study that I found suggested that you need to reuse a ceramic mug about 500 times to hit the "break even point"--the point where the energy used to make the ceramic mug, divided by the number of uses, equals the energy used to make a single styrofoam cup.

The most recent work that I could find on the issue was a study that compares the energy used to make ceramic, glass, paper and polystyrene (commonly called "styrofoam") cups, written by chemist and professor Martin Hawking. The paper was published in the journal of Environmental Management in 1994, which sounds like a scientific lifetime ago, but my little sister (who studies paper science and engineering at college) said that the field is slow moving and that the numbers could still be relatively accurate. Let me know if you find a newer study or review article.

The study concluded that polystyrene cups take the least energy to make. In fact, it takes more energy to wash your mug than it takes to make a styrofoam cup, according to Hawking's paper. But there's little doubt that the petroleum-based food containers have a bad reputation. Nobody seems to have a particularly cost-effective way of recycling styrofoam, so most of the cups go straight into a landfill. EPA estimates suggest that Americans throw away nearly 25,000,000,000 styrofoam cups each year.  So I understand why the food containers have been banned in a number of U.S. Cities, and I why get dirty looks from hipsters when I get my tall mocha double-cupped at the coffee shop.  

In the end, the ceramic mug comes out as the most eco-friendly choice, but only if you keep using it and maybe even use it more than once between washing.  (I'd suggest rinsing between uses.  Otherwise, it sounds a wee bit gross.)

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A Carbon Count on Orange Juice

This article from yesterday's New York Times corroborates the claim I made about paying more attention to what you eat, rather than how far it travels to get to you.

But I never guessed that oranges would show up on the most wanted list.

From the NYTimes:

The biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions turned out to be simply growing oranges, not transportation or production.

 credit: JoeBiafore/istockphoto                     

Power Settings and Power Savings

If you use a computer at work (like I do), double-check your power settings. On a Mac, you can do so by selecting "system preferences" from the apple icon menu at the top left. On a PC, go into the control panel. If you're running Linux I presume you already know what you're doing (and it varies from distro to distro. Call upon your local open source forum for help.)

Setting your computer to standby after it's been idle for a few minutes will save energy when you're away from your desk and, as an added benefit, it may startle you out of a daydream if you're zoning out at your desk. 

The energy savings are impressive.  By setting my computer to "sleep" after five minutes of being idle, and putting it to sleep before leaving for the night, I used about 30 percent less energy during the day (from 0.45 kWh to 0.32 kWh)  and halved my computer's energy use during the night (from 0.08kWh to 0.04 kWh).

I know, I know, why should my computer use any power at all at night? Well, I don't turn off the computer at night because I hate waiting for the system to boot in the morning. It's embarrassing to admit, but I started the habit back when I had an older computer that took a significant amount of time to start from being off.  Now that I have a faster computer, I'll nix the old habit (starting now).  (The Department of Energy suggests that you should turn off your computer if you're going to leave it for two hours, but turning it off even if you're only leaving for an hour is probably a good idea.)

In fact, you might want to unplug it altogether. Most computers, like many other appliances, use power to stay in a "ready" mode, even when they aren't on.  This is what people are talking about when they refer to a "phantom load."  The amount of power used by your computer when it's off but plugged in is small.  We're talking watts, not kilowatts. 

The folks over at the Lawrence Berkley National Lab drew up this chart of the phantom load (expressed in Watts) used by some common appliances:

Chart of standby power use.
 "Count" is the number of appliances of each type that they tested.     Click for more            

I've seen a few studies and articles that talk about re-engineering household electronics to use less than one watt while in standby mode, but in the meantime pulling the plug on your idle appliances is the only way to reduce the waste. 

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These Come From Trees

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This is a bit off-topic, but it's neat enough to share.  I encountered one of these stickers in the bathroom of my local grocery store a few days ago:


Here at NOVA, we just had motion-sensitive, single-sheet, paper towel dispensers installed in all of the bathrooms. So it takes considerable time and effort to use more than one paper towel. But maybe your workplace could go a little greener with the help of these stickers.

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photo credit: step2626/istockphoto.com            
Show of hands, who hasn't been on a bus (or bike) since middle school?

Everyone knows you should ride the bus, bike, or rollerblade to work to "save the environment."  But that's easier said than done. Buses, like cabs, are never nearby when you need them, cycling leaves one at the mercy of Mother Nature, and rollerblading takes coordination.

Yesterday I mentioned that my method of transportation is about as good as I can make it.  I travel to and from work by bike when I can, and by bus when the weather is too bad.  I get cold in the winter, and overheat in the summer.  My jacket is studded with blinking LEDs and I have what seems like constant helmet hair, but it's worth it.  Here are a few of the reasons why. 

 Energy Conservation  Traveling by bike is a marvelously efficient way to go.  A cyclist burns about 35 kilocalories (this is the "calorie" you see on nutrition labels) per mile.  To put that in perspective, see how other modes of transportation measure up: The subway runs at about 800 kcals/mile, the bus at 900 kcals/mile and a car at 1800 kcals/mile.  

 Gridlock/air pollution  When I first started biking to work, I was surprised to learn that biking is slightly faster than driving, at least in Boston.  Bikes don't get snared in traffic jams, and don't contribute smog.

  Nothing brings you closer to another person than shared misery, and nothing provides more common misery than the weather. Is it too cold?  Too rainy?  Too hot?  When you cycle to work, you know firsthand.  Cyclists never run out of things to say about the weather. Join our ranks.  

I realize that I'm speaking from a place of privilege.  I can afford to advocate cycling and public transportation. I live in a city where the buses and trains run every 10 minutes during rush hour and on the half hour during the day.  Many of our streets have bike paths (sadly, during the winter, "bike path" seems to be just another word for snowdrift), and my neighborhood was recently named the best walking city in America.

Not so long ago, I lived in upstate New York.  There, the bus was unreliable and nothing was close enough to walk to. Anyone who didn't own a car was asking for a preponderance of boring Saturday nights.

I also realize that even in a city like mine, there are other considerations that keep people car-bound. If I had a dependent to worry about, or lived more than a few miles from work, I'd be sorely tempted back into car ownership.

I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do what this cyclist does.

For those who can't change their ways entirely, keep these common tips in mind: Carpool when you can, and try to run your errands in one go to maximize path efficiency. If you work flexible hours, shift your schedule to avoid rush hours  Slow down to reduce the drag on your vehicle and maximize fuel efficiency, inflate your tires properly, and watch out for cyclists.     

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