Living for the Long Haul: How/where do we use energy?


Previous columns in this series reviewed how, over the course of the past two generations, we have dramatically increased our energy consumption.

We also proposed that each of us needs to conserve energy based on our conclusions that oil is a finite resource, that the oil we have today contains less net energy than in the past, that oil prices remain low due to massive federal subsidies and that renewable energy resources have relatively low net energy output and require mining of rare earth metals along with use of large amounts of fossil fuels in their manufacture.

We understand cutting back our energy use is not something Americans like to hear. We are used to hearing about continuous progress and “bigger is better."

However, these past few months of the COVID-19 “shelter in place” experience has given us a hint of what is possible in “cutting back." We have demonstrated that we can be resilient and resourceful. We have driven less; we have taken fewer trips; we have found we can entertain ourselves at home; we have cooked at home more.

Rural folk, after all, are a bit more used to doing for themselves, getting things done without spending a fortune and even horse-trading to get things done on the cheap.


So where do you and I consume the bulk of energy that our parents and grandparents didn’t consume?

Given our long, cold Minnesota winters, home heating still accounts for our largest energy usage. Even though most homes have better insulation than our parents' and grandparents' homes, the average house size in the USA has doubled since 1950 and with it cost of heating that space has increased significantly.

Heating water is another significant use of energy in our homes - approximately 17% of home energy use. Unlike our grandparents, we have grown accustomed to having hot water available 24 hours a day even when we are at work or on vacation.

A third major source of energy use includes various appliances, particularly appliances that function to heat or cool. Refrigerators, freezers, kitchen stoves, clothes dryers all consume large amounts of energy. Comparatively, lights use less energy but because they are used for longer periods of time and we have so many of them, their cumulative energy becomes significant.

Then there is all the electronic equipment that our parents or grandparents didn’t have. The sheer number of these gadgets, multiplied by the number of hours they are used, results in significant electric usage. Many of these, like garage door openers, cordless phones, computer modems, satellite boxes and printers, are things we don’t even think about.

And an insidious electrical use, termed “phantom electricity,” includes a small amount of electricity used by electronic equipment when it’s plugged in even though it is turned off.

And finally, a major energy use is our driving. We drive much more than our parents and grandparents did. In 1946, the average vehicle in the USA traveled about 3,000 miles per year, whereas in 2004 the average vehicle traveled more than 10,000 miles per year.

When I (Doug) was a kid, going to Brainerd was a major trip that we only did once or twice a year. My first trip to the Twin Cities was when I was 12 years old.


So how do we begin to get a handle on the amount of energy we use? We would suggest three possibilities.

First, keep a monthly record of your energy use recording: kilowatt hours of electricity used (not the cost because that can change); the gallons of water used; the cubic feet of natural gas or gallons of propane used; the number of gallons of gasoline used by automobiles/utility vehicles/lawn equipment. This will help you monitor your progress as you begin to cut back usage.

Second, periodically complete a couple of carbon footprint calculators that are available on the internet to monitor the changes you are making:

Finally, consider having a home energy audit done. There are a number of reputable companies in our area that will determine how energy efficient your house is and recommend ways to save on energy costs.
(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged:

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.


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