Easing Off the Gas

The Do the Math blog series has built the case that physical growth cannot continue indefinitely; that fossil fuel availability will commence a decline this century—starting with petroleum; that alternative energy schemes constitute imperfect substitutes for fossil fuels; and has concluded that a very smart strategy for us to adopt is to slow down while we sort out the biggest transition humans have ever faced. The idea is to relieve pressure on the system, avoid the Energy Trap, and give ourselves the best possible chance for a successful transformation to a stable future. Since building this case, I have described substantial adaptations in our home energy use, but have not yet addressed the one that bears most directly on the immediate problem: transportation and liquid fuels. Let’s take a look at what can be done here.

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Heat those Feet!

Infrared image of a cold left foot (25°C with 19°C toes), compared to a warm (33°C) right foot.

One of the more bothersome aspects of living in an unheated house (with tile floors in much of the house, in my case) is having cold feet. Spring has arrived, so perhaps this post is not as timely as it might otherwise have been. But let’s consider the energy costs of various approaches to warming up cold feet.

The main problem I have with cold feet is that they make it hard to go to sleep. Otherwise cold feet don’t seem to distract me from normal activities. But let’s say that your feet are cold and that you cannot stand it any longer, and therefore must warm them up. I’ll look at a number of options, assessing how much energy is consumed for each. We’ll try hot water in the sink, a space heater (or blow dryer) under a blanket, a heating pad wrapped around the feet, or good-old metabolic energy.

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The Phantoms I’ve Killed

Two weeks ago, I described my factor-of-five reduction of natural gas usage at home, mostly stemming from a decision not to heat our San Diego house. We have made similar cuts to our use of utility electricity, using one-tenth the amount that comparable San Diego homes typically consume. In this post, I will reveal how we pulled this off…with plots. Some changes are simple; some require behavioral changes; some might be viewed as outright trickery.

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Home Heating for the Hardy

Sleeping warm

If you are on-board with the sentiment that we should strive to reduce the amount of energy we consume as a means to relieve pressure on a world suffering impending energy scarcity, then you probably want to know how one might proceed. In this post, I will describe the single-biggest energy-saving strategy I have employed in my home in the past five years, which slashed my natural gas consumption by almost a factor of five.

Last week, I described how to read gas meters, in the process discovering how onerous pilots lights can be. As a result of initial exploration of my energy footprint in the spring of 2007, I shut off the furnace pilot light for the summer, which I figured accounted for two-thirds of my warm-season natural gas use. When winter came, my wife and I challenged ourselves to hold off on re-igniting the pilot light until it got too cold for us to bear. That day never came. The result was a dramatic reduction in natural gas use.

In this post, I will talk about some of the ups and downs of adjusting to a colder house in the winter. Granted, we live in moderate San Diego, and could not get away with the same tactic in many locales. Even so, I will quantify the gains one might expect elsewhere for similar living conditions.

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Pilot Lights are Evil


My personal journey into home energy reduction began with taking stock of past energy use as reported on my utility bills. I quickly migrated toward reading the meters directly to gauge the impact of particular activities. What I learned from our gas meter shocked me, and ultimately led to our single-biggest energy-saving behavioral shift. I’ve already ruined any hope of suspense in the title of the post, but just how bad does something have to be before I’ll resort to a word like “evil?” And how bad are your own demons? Ah—now you can’t wait to find out!

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My Great Hope for the Future

So far on Do the Math, I’ve put out a lot of negative energy—whatever that means. Topics have often focused on what we can’t do, or at least on the failings or difficulties of various ambitious plans. We can’t expect indefinite growth—whether in energy, population, or even growth of the economic variety. It is not obvious how we maintain our current standard of living once fossil fuels begin their inexorable decline this century. And as I’ve argued before, achieving a steady-state future implies approximate equity among the peoples of the Earth, so that maintaining today’s global energy consumption translates to living at one-fifth the power currently enjoyed in the U.S.

In this post, I offer a rosy vision for what I think we could accomplish in the near term to maximize our chances of coming out shiny and happy on the tail end of the fossil fuel saga. I’m no visionary, and this exercise represents a stretch for a physicist. But at least I can sketch a low-risk, physically viable route to the future. I can—in part—vouch for its physical viability based on my own dramatic reductions in energy footprint. I cannot vouch for the realism of the overall scheme. It’s a dream and a hope—a fool’s hope, really—and very, very far from a prediction or a blueprint. I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. Now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.

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Got Storage? How Hard Can it Be?

The recent city-wide power outage in San Diego made me appreciate my small off-grid photovoltaic system using four golf-cart batteries to store energy for use at night. Unlike most San Diegans, I did not immediately eat the ice cream in my freezer, which trucked along under stored solar energy just like it does every night. Energy storage becomes more important as we transition away from fossil fuels—already its own energy storage medium—to more intermittent sources. But besides batteries—which offer a limited number of cycles and for some types require monthly maintenance—what other non-fossil in-home energy storage alternatives might we consider, and how much energy might we expect to store in each case? We will look at gravitational storage, flywheels, compressed air, and hydrogen fuel cells as possible options. Some might even cost less than $100,000 to implement in your home.

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