Sunday, February 15, 2009

Can One Household (Or One Business) Save the Planet? No, but...

Today's Washington Post Magazine has a compelling feature article "Can One Household Save The Planet?" (Free access - membership registration may be required) The subtitle responds: "No, but the planet can't be saved without it." The charming, utterly engaging article begins with the exasperated writer, Liza Mundy, wondering how best to start:
"I'm in the corner of our family room, by the TV, looking to take a first baby step toward making my houshold greener. Everything I've read on reducing your carbon footprint says it's best to start with something easy, and what could be easier than unplugging electronics?

(But) what about the cordless phone, which I am just now noticing, and which must be drawing a bit of power to make that red light stay on? If we unplug the phone, it won't work, so I better leave that one connected. Ditto for the oven and microwave, both of which have digital clocks -- a minute apart, I notice, meaning they are sucking power from the grid in order to give me conflicting information. Since they are both encased in cabinets, I'd have to get a saw to unplug them, and, worse, I'd need to reset the clocks every morning.

Moving upstairs, I see my husband's laptop. If we're going to include that one in our unplugging project, who has to crawl under the table to do it, he or I? Think I'll leave that one to his conscience, and ditto for his BlackBerry charger. But here in the spare bedroom I confront my own laptop, which I hate to turn off, much less unplug, because after three years of heavy use it has become so agonizingly slow that turning it on and off involves enduring any number of virus scans and wretched cannot-connect messages, as well as mysterious warnings about some sort of hidden window. Plus, it's plugged into a power strip with a printer, modem and wireless router, and if I turn the whole strip off, we'll lose the wireless signal, as well as the use of several lamps also plugged into the strip."

If Ms. Mundy's initial slapstick approach to creating just one green household seems a tad reminiscent of the old classic TV show "I Love Lucy," she quickly gets very serious and right to the point:
"...standby power (alone) "accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. electricity consumption, and $11 billion in annual energy costs," according to Katharine Kaplan, EPA team leader for Energy Star product development."
Mundy's analysis is penetrating and thorough. It illustrates the possibilities and the potential cumulative effects of taking personal responsibility for creating what we know we can all create: one green(er) household.

From suburban America, we move to the busy streets of Atlanta, GA and to the entrepreneurs behind Green Express (link - Atlanta Business Journal feature story) who have invested themselves and their hard-earned capital in creating a profitable green business in the unlikeliest of sectors - the delivery business. Think "all hybrid all the time:"

Sustainability, on a global scale, may be the biggest metaphorical "vessel" in the most profound, tempestuous sea mankind will ever attempt to turn 180 degrees. These two very different pieces - one focused on the greening of a single household in an ordinary American neighborhood, the other on how one business is seizing the opportunity to reduce - to a minimum - their carbon footprint and their adverse impact on the global climate/energy crisis, are both testaments to the possibilities of purposeful living. Both point us in the right direction. They're about moving, if only a single deliberate step at a time, toward the ultimate goal of a sustainable global community.

This exemplary 'one house, one business at a time' method brings to mind the classic American National Bestseller, "Bird by Bird," by Anne Lamott. At its soft, sensible heart it is a self-awareness-cum-aspiring-writer's self-help handbook that begins:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
House by house.
Business by business.
Town by town.

That's the way we'll just have to take it... buddy.


  1. "...standby power (alone) "accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. electricity consumption, and $11 billion in annual energy costs," according to Katharine Kaplan, EPA team leader for Energy Star product development."

    This is a very scary statistic. It points to the need for smart metering in houses that would know when products were expected to be in use and turn them on and off based on a profile.

    Why do computers or televisions need to be using power at 3am when everyone is asleep?

  2. Seamus: Re your comment above. While 100 billion anythings sound "scary" and high, and some form of "smart metering" makes sense, the actual sum of energy consumed by appliances and apparatuses in standby mode only amounts to about 1/3 of 1% of our total energy consumption. Today's (Tuesday 2/17/09) post features Ed Mazria and the 2030 Challenge. In the second, longer video he asserts that the United States uses roughly 100 Quads of energy annually. A Quad equal 1 quadrillion BTU. 1 KWh=~3400BTU. Extrapolating the math (yes, that's a lot of zeros to keep track of and exponent numbers to subtract) shows us that 100B KWh = ~1/3Quad. Not so much energy in the big picture. On the other hand, this useless siphoning of $11B in real dollars would build a lot of schools and would fund a lot of green architecture and engineering scholarships.

  3. As a couple who live in a tiny community in The Boon Docks – who share a generator with my folks because the power goes out on a regular basis – we've become very aware of which appliances draw the most electricity.

    It’s been utterly astonishing to experience first-hand the impact of simply unplugging one’s battery backups, surge protectors and unplug-able appliances. We used to think it was enough to just turn those things off. However, with last weekend’s 2-day power outage, we learned that even though my battery backup was turned off and ITS light was out, my cell phone charger continued to draw power. We had no clue it was doing so until I unplugged the backup, and the charger beeped at me...


    Thinking consciously about power usage has become, well, a way of life: “one bird at a time.”

  4. Another interesting topic is peak demand flattening.

    During the hottest part of the summer days when everyone's air conditioners kick in full blast, the Power companies are required to fire up their oldest and most polluting power stations to handle the peak load.

    The Greening Greater Toronto study ( was able to reduce peak load by providing an in house meter to the consumer to educate them on when power was the most environmentally costly. A 1% reduction in peak usage would reduce the carbon emissions by 10%.