For the past two decades, my wife Janet and I have been trying to transition our home to a post-fossil-fuel future. I say “trying,” because the experiment is incomplete and only somewhat successful. It doesn’t offer an exact model for how the rest of the world might make the shift to renewable energy; nevertheless, there’s quite a bit that we’ve learned that could be illuminating for others as they contemplate what it will take to minimize climate change by replacing coal, oil, and gas with cleaner energy sources.
We started with a rather trashy 1950s suburban house on a quarter-acre lot. We didn’t design a solar-optimal house from scratch the way Amory Lovins did (we thought about it, but we just didn’t have the time or money). We did what we could afford to do, when we could afford to do it.
Our first step was to insulate our exterior walls, ceiling, and floors. That was probably our best investment overall: it saved energy, and it made the house quieter and more pleasant to live in. Then we installed a small (1.2 kw) photovoltaic system, and planted a garden and fruit-and-nut orchard. Gradually, over the years, we added battery backup for our PV system, a solar hot water heater, a solar food dryer, chickens, solar cookers, energy-efficient appliances (including a mini-split electric HVAC system), and an electric car.
Here are ten things we learned along the way.
- It’s expensive. Altogether, we’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on our quest for personal sustainability. And we’re definitely not big spenders. We economized at every stage, and occasionally benefitted from free labor and materials (our solar hot water panels, for example, were donated, and we built our food dryer from scrap). Still, once every few years we made a significant outlay for some new piece of electricity-generating or energy-saving technology. True, solar panels have gotten cheaper in the intervening years. On the other hand, there are things we still haven’t gotten to: we continue to rely on an old natural gas-fired kitchen cooking stove, which really should be replaced with an induction range if we hope to be all-solar-electric.
- Some things didn’t work. Early on, we planned and built a glassed-in extension on the south side of our house. Our idea was that it would capture sunlight in the winter and reduce our heating bills. As it turned out, we didn’t get the window and roof angles right, and so we receive relatively little heating benefit from this add-on. Instead we use it as a garden room for starting seedlings in the early spring. I suspect the global renewable energy transition will similarly see a lot of good ideas go awry, and false starts repurposed.
- Some things worked well. Twenty years after purchase, we have an antique PV system, with museum-quality Siemens panels still spitting out electrons. We made a big investment up-front, and got free electricity for two decades. This is a very different economic bargain from the familiar one with fossil fuels, which is pay-as-you-go. Similarly, making a rapid global energy transition, though offering some economic benefits in the long run, will require an enormous up-front expenditure. We learned that solar cookers are extremely cheap and pleasing to work with—in the summer months. Finally, we learned that keeping chickens is an economical source of eggs, though hens are less cost-effective from a food-production standpoint if you choose to treat them well (and continue caring for them after their egg laying subsides), as we did. There can be valuable side benefits: one hen, who’s been with us for nearly 10 years, has become an emotional support animal who supplants our need for more costly sources of psychological aid. I could say much more about her—but that’s for another occasion. Our chickens also provide manure and eggshells that enrich our soil. We compost some of our greenwaste and keep a worm bin, thus reducing energy usage by diverting some of our waste that would otherwise go to a landfill; we seasonally dry some produce in our solar dehydrator; and we can some of our fruit. These activities require little financial investment, but need a noticeable ongoing investment of effort.
- Energy storage is especially expensive. Our solar panels have lasted a long time, but our battery backup system didn’t. It now provides only about 20 minutes of power. True, our battery system is far from being state-of-the-art (it consists of five high-capacity lead-acid cells). Nevertheless, this proved to be the least-durable, least cost-effective aspect of our whole effort. The truth is, on both a diurnal and a seasonal basis, we rely almost entirely on the grid for energy storage and for matching electricity supply with demand. The lesson for our global energy transition: even though batteries are getting cheaper, energy storage will still be a costly engineering challenge.
- Reduce energy usage before you transition. Because renewable energy generation requires a lot of up-front investment, and because energy storage is also costly, it makes sense to minimize energy demand. For a household, that’s not problematic: we were quite happy shrinking our energy usage to roughly a quarter of the California average. But for society as a whole, this has huge implications. It’s possible to reduce demand somewhat through energy-efficiency measures, but serious reduction will have economic repercussions. We have built our national and global economic systems on the expectation of always using more. A successful energy transition will necessarily entail moving away from a growth-based consumer economy to an entirely different way of organizing investment, production, consumption, and employment.
- Our house is not an industrial manufacturing site. We don’t make our own cement or glass. If we had tried, it would have been a more interesting experiment, but much harder. We were undertaking the easy aspects of energy transition. The really difficult bits include things like aviation and high-heat industrial processes.
- Adding personal transportation to our renewable energy regime shifted us into energy deficit mode. We like our electric car, but charging it takes a lot of electricity (the energy needed to manufacture the car is another story altogether). Once we bought the car, we realized we need a larger PV system (that’s on our to-do list). For society as a whole, this suggests that transitioning the transportation sector will require sacrifice (see number 5, above). A renewable future will likely be less mobile and more local, and will feature more bikes and ebikes than cars. We should start shortening supply chains immediately.
- True sustainability and self-sufficiency would have required a lot more money, a lot more work, adaptation to a lot less consumption—or all three. Our experiment was informal; we didn’t keep track of every way in which we were using energy directly or indirectly (for example, via the embodied energy in the products we purchased). We continue to depend on flows of energy and money, and stocks of resources, in the world at large. We don’t generate the energy needed to mine minerals, or to manufacture cars, solar panels, or other stuff we have bought, such as clothes, a TV, computers, and books. The same holds for food self-sufficiency: we get a lot of fruit, nuts, eggs, and veggies from our backyard with minimal fossil energy inputs, but we buy the rest of what we eat from a local organic market. The world as a whole doesn’t have the luxury of going elsewhere to get what it needs; the transition will have to be comprehensive.
- You can’t expect someone else to do it all for you. Many people assume that the cost of the energy transition will somehow be paid by society as a whole—primarily, by big utility companies acting under government regulations and incentives. But households like yours and mine will have to bear a lot of the expense, and businesses will have to do even more of the heavy lifting. If households can’t afford to buy new equipment, or businesses can’t do so profitably, that will make the transition that much harder and slower. If we make the transition more through energy demand reduction rather than new technology, that will require massive shifts in people’s (read: your and my) expectations and behavior.
- We’re glad we did what we did. Our experiment has been instructive and rewarding. As a result of it, we have a much better appreciation for where our energy and manufactured products come from, and how much they impact the environment. We are more keenly aware of what we formerly took for granted and how cluelessly privileged our nation has been in its reliance on cheap fossil fuels. Our quality of life has improved as our consumption declined.
We would do most of it all over again (though I’d put more effort into designing the solarium that now serves as our garden room). I would have thought, at the outset, that after 20 years we’d be more sustainable and self-sufficient than we actually are. My take-away: the energy transition is an enormous job, and people who look at it just in terms of politics and policy have little understanding of what is actually required.
Teaser photo credit: By Hunter McNenny – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0