The 'D Factor' in Fiscal Sustainability

Posted Wednesday, February 29, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

The 'D Factor' in Fiscal Sustainability

Courtesy University of Maine

by Paul Kando

As I write, there is cyber-chatter about $5 gas and oil and the saber-rattling about Iran is getting louder. Three pie charts come to mind, developed at the University of Maine a few years ago. The bite energy bills take from the average Maine family budget (blue fields on the pie charts) grew from around 5 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2008 and it is on track to double to 40 percent by 2018. Factor in the cost of health care (yellow fields) and Maine families will find themselves having to survive on a scant fourth of their income for everything else – mortgage, food, car payments, clothes, education, vacation, entertainment, and so on.

What can we homeowners do?

We know that we could heat our houses (40 percent of the family energy budget, costing over $3,700 this year) with 90 percent less energy than most of us use. At today’s price of $3.79 per gallon of #2 oil, such a passive house energy upgrade translates to an annual saving of $3,411 this year, rising to over $5,700 per year by 2018. The remaining 10 percent heating energy could be cost-effectively supplied by renewable energy, creating a zero energy house.. But even with more modest, partly do-it-yourself efforts guided by an energy audit, most Maine households could cut their heating energy use by more than half.

Yes, you say, but all this costs money. Absolutely. However you are spending between three and four-thousand dollars on this winter’s heating, and seem prepared to keep spending more every year into the future. Long range, oil prices have increased an average of 6.81 percent per year, according to the Energy Information Administration. At that rate, by 2020 each of us will have spent over $46,000 on fuel oil. That’s real money. Couldn’t we spend a sum like that better?

Enter the “D factor”, wherein “D” stands for “decision”.

When in 1997 a majority of the world, including the United States, signed the Kyoto Protocol, they committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By 2000 Germany, among others, had set its goals and had a two prong plan to achieve them: 1. A comprehensive renewable energy policy for a speedy transition away from oil; and 2. Programs to gradually improve energy efficiency.  Germany’s national energy policy resulted in triple digit growth in the use of solar, wind, and biomass energy, creating whole new industries and nearly half-million new jobs. Meanwhile there were improvements in energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and power generation. More than 75 German communities even became fully energy self-reliant.

In contrast, the U.S. withdrew from Kyoto in 2000. It still has no coherent energy policy, only desperate attempts to squeeze out oil from under boreal forests and wet lands, waiting for federal or state sugar daddy to help pay for energy-improvements. Only the longer we wait the more things will cost.

Lessons abound: There is no tooth fairy. To succeed we must set firm goals; lay out a plan to achieve them; and act on that plan. We will either reduce the annual heating bill of our homes by making one-time investments, using as our budget what we annually spend on heating, or we will fail to decide and spend that money on oil into the future. Which is the smarter course?

To set achievable goals and plan we must have information. The average Maine house loses 36 percent of its heat through random air and moisture leaks, 22 percent through under-insulated walls, 18 percent through uninsulated basement ceilings and 14 percent through poorly performing windows. Lesser amounts are lost through uninsulated pipes and ducts and under-insulated attics. I have no idea where your house wastes its energy. Nor do I know the extent of moisture damage caused by misinformed attempts to save energy. Only an energy audit can discover such things.

Since my own audit I air-sealed, installed window inserts and insulated the basement ceiling. By doing the work myself, our total costs total less than $1,000 so far and the window inserts have more than paid for themselves over the past three winters. We are far from being done, but we do have a plan. Our comfort rose and our heating bills went down. We are on a roll.

What about alternatives to fuel oil? Stay tuned.

blog comments powered by Disqus