In each of our lives, there come times when we have to make choices about our place in the world. Do we choose to be an active participant or a passive bystander? Recently, I have found myself in the unpopular position of participant.

By now, most people have been touched by the possibility of an oil shortage. Whether from increasing prices at the gas pump or through reading news stories about “peak oil”, in some way, the rising cost of oil has touched us all. But only a small minority has an appreciation for the implications of an energy crisis in the 21st century.

For me, it hit during the Fall of 2004. Gas and heating oil prices had practically doubled in the preceding year and I was looking into more efficient heating and cooling systems for my home. During the course of my research, I came across information on peak oil – the concept that the world was about to reach a point in time when global oil production was at a maximum.

At first, this might not seem like such a big deal. There’s plenty of oil now, and we’ve been extracting it for many decades, so why should this be a problem? And besides, look at the advances in hybrid vehicles, solar power, and those miraculous fuel cells! In the next fifty years, scientists are sure to come up with a replacement for oil.

Unfortunately, the world consumption of energy increases every year. Strong economies are built on the abundance of energy. And most of our energy comes from oil. Oil to run cars, to make plastic, to provide power for the foundries that produce computer chips. Oil for farm machinery and electricity. Everything we know as progress and economic growth depends on a never ending supply of relatively inexpensive oil.

And what of alternative energies? Perhaps if we did have one hundred years to transition from oil to alternate sources, we could do so smoothly. Unfortunately, the world demand for oil will likely exceed the maximum supply within the next decade. Only with concerted efforts on the part of every person can we hope to pass this critical juncture without severe disruption to our way of life.

Each moment, we make decisions which seem insignificant in and of themselves. When multiplied by six and a half billion people, these same decisions are world changing. Even if one only includes the population of the United States, roughly 300 million people, even the most minute decision can change the world.

For example, in the U.S., we use approximately twenty million barrels of oil per day. That’s 2.8 gallons of oil per person per day. Each of us may think that it doesn’t matter if we use 2 or 3 gallons per day, but when considering the entire population, this seemingly trivial difference amounts to almost three hundred million gallons of oil per day. Think about that. 

Each of us holds the key to the future of the world. If only ten or even a thousand of us turn that key, little will happen. But if tens of millions of us take action, the cumulative effort can help us not only survive but thrive in the upcoming decades.

I’ve made a personal choice to consider how each of my daily decisions affects my personal energy consumption. Should I drive a truck or a scooter down to the store for a few groceries? Should I install a fluorescent bulb to replace the burned out incandescent? Trivial decisions by themselves, profound ones together.

And then there are the big decisions. I own a couple rental properties in addition to my own home. Some are heated by oil furnaces. Every year, they burn hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of oil. What if I throw away the furnace and install a more efficient heating system? What if my friends and neighbors did the same? What if everyone did so? Soon one thousand gallons becomes ten thousand then millions of gallons saved every year*.

How about my house? This year I spent quite a bit of time and money improving the insulation on my own home and at rental properties. In doing so, I reduced the energy needs of the houses significantly. Will the energy savings pay for the insulation and my time? Maybe not any time soon. Will it save oil? Absolutely.

And how about that renovation project? Replace leaky windows with high efficiency, low-e windows and reduce one of the greatest sources of energy loss in your home by 50%-75%. Again, it may take a while to pay for them, but every improvement made will save irreplaceable oil.

Even better, add passive and active solar heating. Using relatively basic principles, you can drastically reduce your home's heating needs. And if you're building a new home, incredible savings can be achieved through a whole house design that utilizes intelligent building design, low consumption appliances, and solar heating.

Can I change the world by saving a gallon of oil today? You bet I can. And so can you!

 

Choices That Matter

Replace the Oil/Gas Furnace

While not an inexpensive option, if you have an old furnace that you're planning on replacing anyway, the energy savings can pay for the switchover.

Rather than using an oil or gas furnace, consider a ground source heat pump. By moving heat from the ground into your home, the GSHP can heat/cool your home for a fraction of the cost of a furnace. In a medium sized home, heating bills under $100/month during winter are typical. Oil savings will be 500-2000 gallons for most homes.

In many areas, you can even install furnaces that run on dry corn. These pellet stoves help you support your local farmers and provide vast amounts of heat at very reasonable prices.

Improve Your Insulation

Most older homes are considerably under-insulated. By bringing your attic and basement insulation up to modern standards, you can reduce utility bills year round.

Install Efficient Windows

Standard, single-pane glass windows provide minimal protection against the outside cold or heat. Upgrading to double pane windows can reduce the losses by 40%.

Switching to Low-e double pane windows can reduce losses even more and result in a more comfortable home.

Importantly, ensure that the windows are caulked on the outside so air can not come in around the frames. Air infiltration through leaky windows and doors can almost double your heating bills! If you feel a draft, plug it up.

Drive Less and More Efficiently

Each of us uses ~1000 gallons of gasoline per year. Reduce this by carpooling, telecommuting and trip planning.

Drive a More Efficient Vehicle

Most of our cars and trucks get from 15-25mpg. For daily commuting, there's no need to take the SUV. Simply using a sedan to commute can save a gallon or two per day. Switching to a hybrid, efficient diesel or motorcycle, can save another couple gallons per day.

If you want to be leading edge, you can convert any diesel engine to run on recycled veggie oil. You can run your car for almost no fuel money and use no fossil fuels in the process! Or, simply buy Biodiesel, which can run almost any diesel vehicle as-is!

Go solar!

Solar heating has become quite practical. With state subsidies, a substantial fraction of the cost of going solar can be absorbed.

But even without assistance, one can install a solar hot water system that will provide most of your home's hot water needs at an affordable price.


* footnote: Of course the energy to heat your home has to come from somewhere. Good passive solar design can greatly reduce consumption. As can improved insulation and windows. In my case, I did a bit of everything. Installed a geothermal heat pump which runs efficiently on electricity (in my area, mostly nuclear), upped the insulation, and, I am in the process of replacing all the inefficient windows in the house with new ones. Hopefully, solar is in my future as well.

 

Magazines and Reference Articles

Home Power Magazine - Magazine devoted to "home-scale renewable energy and sustainable living solutions"
Mother Earth News - Magazine with long history of devotion to alternative energy and low-impact living
National Geographic - The End of Cheap Oil (article)
Newsweek - Crude Awakening (article)

Energy Efficient Building

Energy Testing & Consulting - My energy auditing, IR Inspection and sustainable building consulting business

Energy and Environmental Building Association - Focused on educating professional builders
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy - U.S. Gov. page on efficient building topics
EnergyStar - The U.S. Government EnergyStar Program
Home Energy Audit - Helps you find ways to save energy in your home
OIKOS Green Building Source - Green Building News

SIPS - Structural Insulated Panel Systems described on U.S. Gov site.
SIPS - SIP Association

Efficient Vehicles / Biodiesel for Transportation

Biodiesel - Green-trust.org info on biodiesels with lots of links
Biodiesel.org - "The official site of the national biodiesel board"

Biodiesel 101 - Nice overview and links to biodiesel resources
Biodiesel from Algae - University of New Hampshire site. Give background usage stats and savings possible
Biodiesel from Algae - U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory paper on getting oil from algae
Biodiesel Now - Biodiesel site with extensive discussion group
Dog River Alternative Fuels - a small Vermont group making biodiesel and showing others how to do it too
Green Car Congress - "Technologies, issues and policies for sustainable mobility"

Hybrid Vehicles on the Market - Site listing currently manufactured or planned hybrid gas/electric vehicles
The Diesel Stop - Discussion group for all things diesel. Plenty of biodiesel threads
Union of Concerned Scientists - Biodiesel FAQ - the basics of biodiesel

Government Resources

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy - Portal - U.S. DOE main portal.
Reducing Home Heating & Cooling Costs - Gov. Document
Insulation Fact Sheet - DOE information on insulation

Home Heating

Furnaces
BioDiesel - Using BioDiesel in a domestic home oil burner
Mother Earth News - Heat Your Home With BioDiesel

Ground Source Heat Pumps
Geothermal Heat Pumps - EERE informational document describing these systems
GeoExchange - Geothermal heat pump consortium - educational site for high efficiency home heating/cooling systems

Peak Oil

ASPO - Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
Peak oil reference articles - on ASPO website

Solar Energy

Energy Efficient Renewable Energy - Solar - U.S. DOE Resources relating to solar energy
Florida Solar Energy Center - University of Florida Solar Education Site
Windows - Just like it says! Info on windows

United States Energy Information Agency

Overall analysis of current consumption and production

Transportation

BioDiesel - Organization promoting using organically grown sources for fueling your diesel
GreaseCar - Convert your diesel car to run on recycled veggie oil.

Zero Energy Homes

Florida Zero Energy Homes - Homes designed to produce as much energy as they consume