Solutions to Rising Energy Costs and a Warming Climate

A little over three years ago my family relocated to Westport. Our property, click a former gravel pit, ed was brown and barren when we first purchased it. What was once barren is now green, and we are greeted daily by the farm animals that share our home. Part of our living in this beautiful place has been about sustainability. We organically grow as much of our food as possible, and take advantage of the local farmers that sell their products. My husband, a plumbing and heating contractor, has spent over twenty years designing and installing energy efficient heating systems, and part of our own efforts to be green has involved exploring alternative energy sources. Globally, people are being bombarded with rising energy costs. For some of us it means tightening our budget a bit, but for many people it means choosing between staying warm and doing other things – eating perhaps. Faced with a warming climate and rising energy costs now is a good time to look at energy efficiency and renewable sources. Homeowners will be in for a huge shock this winter when it comes time to fill their oil tanks this winter. Several weeks ago we purchased oil for our home at $4.75 per gallon. A homeowner using 1000 gallons of oil per year can expect to pay more than $4,750 for oil this year up from $2,420 just one year ago. An elderly customer of ours told us her oil company had recently put her on a monthly payment plan of $500 per month. She responded by converting to gas. As a homeowner there are things you can do to avoid becoming a victim to rising heating costs. A boiler or furnace manufactured today has a much higher efficiency rating than one manufactured more than fifteen years ago. The AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency) measures how efficiently a furnace or boiler will operate. The AFUE is a percentage of the amount of energy consumed that is converted to useful heat. The higher the AFUE, the more efficient the system. Most furnaces installed from the 1950s through the early 1980s had AFUEs of around 65%. Federal law now requires gas furnaces to have minimum AFUEs of 78%. Some furnaces on the market today have AFUEs as high as 97%. The components of a heating system are also a factor in overall efficiency. A boiler or furnace manufactured within the last fifteen years can be retrofitted with new parts and controls to increase its efficiency. This upgrade could improve the efficiency of a sound but older system. The U.S. Department of Energy has a website ( with a table to help estimate the amount of savings that a new more efficient boiler or furnace could provide. Replacing an older less efficient system with a new high efficient system means less heating costs and lower emissions. So, not only is this good for your wallet it’s good for the environment. Anyone that has ever had the pleasure of watching a sleek European Buderus boiler in operation knows this company prides itself on manufacturing quality systems. With over twenty-five years of experience in the European solar field they have released a solar hot water residential package in the United States. There are several advantages to installing a solar hot water system. The entry-level system starts at around $9,000 and up to $3,000 in tax credits is available to help offset that cost. A solar hot water system could offset as much as one-third to one-half of a homeowner’s gas/oil bill and with oil and gas prices on the rise that means the system will pay for itself within a fairly short time period. Designed to be attractive and versatile these systems can be installed in almost any location and fit a vast number of applications. The quick payback of this system coupled with such high oil/gas costs makes it a viable renewable energy source. My husband, a heating/plumbing contractor, is installing a solar system in our home next week. Last November we installed an 80’ 10kw wind turbine on our 25-acre farm in Westport. A few weeks ago I sat down in front of my computer with my electric bills and an Excel spreadsheet. The results were surprisingly disappointing. Our turbine has generated a total of 1758 kilowatts of electricity over an eight-month period. This represents an average of 220 kilowatts per month. At 21 cents per kilowatt that means we have saved a total of $369 over the eight month period or $46 per month. Prior to installation it was projected that the turbine would provide as much as 90% of our energy needs. Currently, it is only meeting 25% of our needs. The good news, at least for us, is that a rebate from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and a USDA grant funded the bulk of the project, and we expect a full return of our investment within less than two years. However, without the USDA grant for farms and small business we would be looking at a 25-year return of investment, and without both the MTC rebate and USDA grant we would be looking at a 95-year return of investment; good for the environment but not exactly a wise financial move. After reviewing the spreadsheet I sent an email to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. I promptly received an email and a twelve-page report confirming that small wind systems are producing only 30% of what was expected, and they are currently exploring some of the factors that may be impacting these discouraging results. Unfortunately, these results will probably lead to questions as to the viability of these projects. The information gathered from the operation of these pilot turbines, however, will be used to improve production, and it seems likely that as more of these turbines are installed prices will probably start to come down. With increased production and lower installation costs on the horizon you can be sure that wind power is here to stay. Taped to the front of our refrigerator is a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” The alternatives that we are being forced to examine benefit both our wallets and the environment as well. Rising energy costs are sending a message, and we need to respond. We can be proactive, pioneers exploring and utilizing renewable energy sources or we can choose to be victims of high-energy costs.

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