Tag Archives: #myPersonalParis

The “Downside” of Staying at Home More

In a quest to save money and consume fewer resources my family has been staying around the house a lot lately.  I tried to make it sound fancy by saying we were focusing on a home based life or economy, but the truth was much simpler.

The reality of the situation is that the transition has been fairly straightforward.  No more “convenience” trips for weeknight dinners.  Instead I meal plan for the entire week—including the provisioning of leftovers for those nights where activities keep us away from home until almost eight o’clock in the evening.  No more “shopping” trips that are really just excuses to walk around like a zombie consumer with the vague notion of buying something you deemed necessary.  Instead we have spent a lot of time the last month or so going through our closets and getting rid of the stuff that clogs our home.  There are probably a dozen or more examples of what this home based life is like in practice.

We are not perfect.  Not by a long shot and it was never the intention.  We still like to go out to eat, but we have cut it down to once during the weekends and we try to go local.  No chains for us, but mostly because the local restaurants are the ones that serve the local beers.  It’s a virtuous circle like that.

The one downside, however, has been that our consumption of electricity at home has gone up.  It makes sense as more time at home cooking dinner and just living would equal more energy consumption.  It was just not something that I had counted on when making my calculations for my solar photovoltaic system.

It is not a large delta—approximately 40 kWh or about $5 per month.  Given the cloudy nature of October and November, so far, we have been outstripping the production of the solar photovoltaic system.

On the plus side, we have traded somewhat hidden energy consumption and overt monetary costs for a modest increase in electricity consumption and significant monetary savings.  Consider that the $5 a month in electricity costs is offsetting a single meal out of the house per weak or slightly more than four meals out of the house per month.  At an average cost of $30, which is conservative given my habit of ordering whatever local tipple is on tap, we are a net positive of $125 for the month without accounting for the energy savings of not driving as much.  Should I consider myself more than $1400 in the black?  Maybe.

The calculation is a little facetious, but it gets at a more salient point about the hidden energy costs of our decisions.  I have no doubt that it takes just as much energy or more to produce a meal at a restaurant when everything is considered—power, plant, and equipment so to speak for those with an accounting bent—that even though we have increased our household electricity consumption somewhat, we are saving both in terms of energy and money.  Something to consider as well is the reduced driving costs to and from such convenience meals.  A few miles here and a few miles there starts to add up to some real savings when you multiply things out over the course of a year.

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Find Your Tribe

In this crazy, mixed up world where Donald Trump can claim that Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia to harm her own campaign as a means to explain his innocence we need to find solid footing more than ever.  We need to find that tribe of people who connect with our beliefs and our passions in order to feel that we belong to this larger universe.  You need to find your tribe.

What do you are about?  What makes your heart sing?  What makes you smile to get up in the morning and see the possible?  Take stock of these things to find your tribe.

It is important to be part of something larger when engaging with your elected representatives because it gives your message staying power.  If you correspond with them as a member of an organization that has individuals testifying or is providing lobbying materials on behalf of an issue it resonates.  There is a reason why the AARP gets its message heard.  When thousands of people call and tell their representatives that the issue is important to members of AARP that legislative agenda gets traction.

Consider the power we can wield.  When Trump, goaded by the Utah congressional delegation and local state politicians including the governor, announced his intention to review more than a dozen monuments declared under several prior presidential administrations the outdoor community howled.  Better yet progressive outdoor companies led by Patagonia and followed quickly by Arc’teryx, Polartec, and Peak Designs among others made it very clear that they would not participate in the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer convention that took place in Salt Lake City.

By July 2017, less than five months after the actions by the outdoor community, Outdoor Retailer announced it would be moving its convention to Denver.  Numbers are hard to come by and notoriously unreliable, but most accounts attribute upwards of $45 million dollars in spending due to the presence of Outdoor Retailer.  I do not care how right wing your politics run $45 million is a lot of money getting pumped into the local economy.

Why did this happen?  Outdoor advocates and companies banded together in a coherent way to make it known they would not stand for the wonton giveaway of our public lands to moneyed interests.  This is the power of our tribes.

This is something that the right wing has understood for years with organizations like the NRA.  Very few members of the NRA actually espouse the virulent views of its leadership but they are counted among the faithful when it comes time to apply political pressure.  We can apply the same level of political pressure on behalf of our causes.

Be active in your tribe.  Be unforgiving in your defense of your tribe.  Be passionate about your tribe.

If you happen to be one of those people so dispossessed and apathetic that there is nothing for which you would man the barricades may whatever god have mercy on your soul.

An October Solar Surprise

October 2017 was kind of an ugly month for my solar photovoltaic system.  I calculated an expected production of approximately 400 kWh and saw production come in at just over 265 kWh.  This works out to about 66% of the predicted output.  Here is how ugly it was:

Solar October 2017.png

Do you see the period of time from October 10th through the 14th?  It must have been almost night out there all day.  What happened?

Easy.  Eastern Iowa saw some seriously gray conditions throughout the month.  Apparently we are entering into the so-called “stratus season” when local climate conditions produce low hanging stratus cloud formations that block out the sun.  November and December are apparently the worst months for this condition.  Awesome.

On the bright side I only ended up using approximately 73 kWh of grid electricity this month, which is not very much in the grand scheme of things.  Considering how well September turned out in terms of production I think I am still ahead of the game by about 64 kWh since my system became active at the end of August.  I will take net positive as we head into the gray months of November and December.

Turning the Lights off at Work

It is my opinion that I have cut down my household electricity consumption to a fairly good range.  For a family of four living in an above average sized home using 360 to 390 kWh per month on a twelve month rolling average feels like a success.  Furthermore, I am offsetting more than 100% of that electricity consumption via the solar photovoltaic system on my roof.

Although my children generally groan when I tell them to head back downstairs to turn off lights when they are done playing with LEGOS or practicing piano they understand what is behind the request.  Heck, my son has turned into a little eco-warrior albeit in his own way.  For some reason he is focused on people who smoke.  His frequent refrain when we pass someone smoking is, “Why do people smoke?  It’s not good for them, it is expensive, and the smoke is bad for the environment.”  If only we all could follow the logic of a six year old.

However, much of my days is not spent at home but at work.  It is a fairly standard office setting.  A lot of cubicles, a smattering of offices, and a handful of conference rooms.  It is the type of office environment that would not be out of place in a half hour sitcom or the movie Office Space.  Fortunately my days are not interrupted by Lundberg.

Surprisingly in a recent renovation of the office space some automatic lighting controls were installed that switch lighting on and off based on movement.  This prevents offices and common areas from being lit up all night long when none is occupying the space.  I say surprisingly because the company I work for is not well known for its forward leaning facilities plan.

The conference rooms do not have these features.  Lights are still controlled by wall mounted switches and projectors for presentations have indeterminate timers.  No matter how many LEDs I switch off in my own home, it cannot compare to switching off the conference room lights at the end of the day before going home.  Heck, I turn off the lights in the three conference rooms I pass on my way to get hot water for tea whenever these rooms are unoccupied.

The computer projectors, though, drive me insane.  When these things are blazing away it is like leaving a 300W incandescent bulb burning.  Ever seen a 300W incandescent bulb?  It’s freaking bright and hot.  A couple of taps on a remote is all it takes to turn these machines off yet most meetings adjourn with the projectors being left on regardless of a meeting taking place in the same room or not.

I now find myself turning into the light and projector police at work.  What about you?  Do you turn the lights off at work?

Refocusing on a Home Based Economy

2009 seems like a long away.  It’s has been “just” eight years, but as Donald Trump continues to be an international embarrassment on a daily basis it makes me wonder about those halcyon days when we waited for Barack Obama to take the oath of office.

2008 was a bear for a lot of people.  The economy literally seemed like it was going off the rails completely and no one had any idea how to fix things.  It turns out the “masters of the universe” in the high finance world had figured out a way to spread the risk and damage from low-grade securitized mortgage loans to almost every aspect of the American economy.  Amazingly, this contagion also spread to the global economy because as much as closed minded right wingers would like to believe the world is not interconnected globalization is a fact of life.

The buzzwords in the winter of 2008 and into 2009 were things like urban homesteading, frugality, DIY, canning, etc.  You get the idea.  We were collectively abandoning a consumer lifestyle focused on buying a plasma television a few inches bigger than the perfectly fine working plasma television in the basement of our home that was half again as big as we needed.  We were all wondering if maybe we had lost something in the pursuit of more square footage, solid surface countertops, nine foot ceilings, and crown molding.  Well, how times have changed.

Or has it?

After eight decent years of economic recovery, which has been uneven and much slower than prior economic recoveries, experts are beginning to wonder if the new era of Trump will also coincide with a recession.  Despite the major stock indices hitting new highs on a seemingly daily basis there is ample evidence that maybe there is just a little gas left in the tank and recession is waiting on the doorstep.

What to do?

My solution is to turn inward and focus on a home based economy.  It’s sort of in line with my theory that the most subversive thing that we can do is nothing.  [LINK]  By focusing our efforts inside of our homes the emphasis is no longer necessarily on the things we buy to consume.  It is inward facing and not concerned with external judgment.

Maybe it is about mindfulness.  Maybe it is about frugality.  Maybe it is about all of those things that we pay lip service to in conversation but forget to act upon the minute we get an email touting the latest sale at REI.  I am as guilty of this behavior as anyone else and it is the single thing that I am trying to break myself from over the course of the next few months.  It is my hope that by focusing on the economy of the home that I will slowly begin to break my own cycle of consumerism.  In the process I hope to solidify household finances and achieve some measure of greater satisfaction.

That sounds great, but what does it mean in practice?

Take a look at the image below:

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This is for the average “consumer unit,” so in reality you will spend more or less on items as your personal circumstances dictate, e.g. I do not smoke so I do not spend $323 per year on tobacco.  However, as a thought exercise it gets you to think about where you spend your money.

It’s easy to key in on the largest single unit related to “housing.”  Yet, for most of us our housing situation is somewhat inflexible because we have a mortgage, lease, etc.  It is easy for some blogger to scream “downsize” but the costs associated with that may actually make the option prohibitive.

Now, look at some of the other categories.  Transportation eats up the next largest portion.  Well, if you start basing your life around your home you will probably drive a lot less.  Trust me, once I started thinking about every mile driven being $0.50 tossed out the window I began to think about every trip I took by car and how I could reduce those miles.  Stay at home and you do not spend the money on transportation.  Yes, you will still spend money on insurance and tags for your vehicle but every mile not driven is less you spend on fuel and maintenance.

Food is the third largest contributor and another place where a home based philosophy can really make a difference.  Modern Americans spend a smaller share of their income on food than at any other time in the country’s history yet we still spend a lot of money both in and out of the home.  Plus, we throw away a lot of food.

The common thread throughout is by focusing on living a frugal life at home the expenses in a lot of these categories can be ameliorated.  If you are buying less stuff you are spending less money and producing fewer carbon emissions.  Like I said earlier the greenest thing you can do is nothing.

We Have the Tools to Create Meaningful Change

For the first time in my memory, which stretches back to the now fuzzy early 1980s, I feel that we have the tools to positively combat climate change available at a personal level.  No longer are we limited to advocating for municipal recycling, agitating McDonald’s to get rid of polystyrene clamshells, or hanging our undergarments out to dry in the sun.  Hey, it was the 1980s and I wanted save the whales so I spent a lot of time writing letters to McDonald’s threatening to boycott Happy Meals forever unless they got rid of those old school burger boxes.

Let me use solar power as an example of a tool that we have available down here at a personal level.  Consider the cost per watt in dollar terms from 1977 until 2015:

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In simple mathematical terms that is a decline in price per way of over 99.5%.  Whereas a solar photovoltaic system was probably only something that strange science teacher who drove an ancient Volvo actually had on his house is now something a lot more people can install.

Take my solar photovoltaic installation.  In a little more than two half days and for a cost of less than $11K I had 4.64 kWh of solar installed in a single array on a west facing garage roof.  After tax credits the total cost will come in somewhere around $6K.  For six thousand dollars I now produce all of my electricity needs from the sun.  Granted, it is a grid tie system so I use traditional utility power on occasion.

Yes, I use a lot less electricity than the average peer house but it’s not like I live in an off-grid yurt.  I have a typically large American refrigerator, I run the air conditioning when it is hot, I have a large screen television that gets turned on to watch football games, and so on.  Hell, I have an electric dryer and range.  The point is that you can use a lot less electricity and produce it all via the sun with a fairly minimal investment and without sacrificing the quality of life we have come to assume is natural in the United States.  This is not Ed Begley Jr. being eco-dramatic on Living with Ed.

Even better is that none of the technology used in a solar system is in its infancy, so the maturity of the design is well along which means the systems are reliable.  No one is going to be spending hours up on a roof trying to figure out why the panels are not producing any juice.  The solid state system just sits on top of the roof generating power from the sun without any moving parts or noise.  Day in and day out whenever the sun shines and even when it does not.  If that is not a powerful tool to combat carbon emissions and the resultant climate change I do not know what would qualify.

Going solar is just one of the many tools available to us to make a difference.  We all need to take a moment and examine our lives.  What are the activities that we engage in that have an outsize impact on our carbon emissions.  Tools exist and are available to us that can ameliorate almost any source of emissions if we are willing to make the effort.

Given the horrible state of national leadership on climate issues it is incumbent upon us as concerned individuals to make every effort and deploy every tool.  You might feel good about yourself when you sign a petition, but it has to go further than that if we are to have any hope of a sustainable and equitable future on this planet.

My goal over the next few months is to really examine what the tools are that can help me—a guy living a fairly normal suburban life with three other people in eastern Iowa—eliminate my carbon emissions.

A Full Month of Solar in September

September 2017 was the first full month with solar providing electricity for my home.  Yay!

The numbers are in and things look good.  For the entire month my solar photovoltaic system produced 509.63 kWh of electricity.  Compared with my estimated based on average solar radiation, my array’s azimuth, and other factors I predicted the system would produce approximately 536 kWh in September.  The system ended up at around 95% of the estimate.

This is a mixed bag, but the weather played a factor.  It was cool and cloudy for a good chunk of the month, so we used little to no air conditioning save for a few days when it decided to reach into the nineties.  Thanks climate change.

In terms of production versus consumption I ended the month producing an excess of approximately 130 kWh of electricity.  I will be very interested to see what my bill looks like with a full month of the bi-directional meter installed.  Last month’s bifurcated bill was an absolute mess to understand.

Also, the thrill of monitoring my photovoltaic system’s production has not really worn off.  On sunny days I loved to check and see how much the system is producing.  Every kWh feels like a small victory.