Lessons from an Energy Efficient Lifestyle

By Steve Nicholson

 Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.

—Al Gore


We live off-the-grid, in the hills of Caroline, NY. We have a small, 820 watt photovoltaic array, and a tiny, 600 watt wind turbine. Our high performance windows, state-of-the-art insulation, and energy-efficient lights and appliances allow our family of four to lead a comfortable, yet extremely low-carbon, lifestyle. We gladly give solar home tours to demonstrate how it is possible to live with most modern conveniences using only renewable energy from the sun.

The United States uses 25 percent of the electricity produced on the planet and is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas release, yet represents only five percent of the population. The average American uses 40 times as much energy as someone in a developing country. Sharing the planet with six billion inhabitants requires a different global sustainable energy strategy.

One third of all power produced in the United States, and one fifth of all CO2 emitted, is from residences. The average American family spends nearly $2,000 per year on utility bills. This expense can be reduced by 10 to 90 percent depending on how aggressive you want to be about efficiency. About half of all the electricity used in homes is consumed by refrigerators (26-65 cents/day). If we all had the most efficient refrigerators available, we could eliminate ten large power plants. However, large screen TVs are now replacing refrigerators as a household’s largest electric load.

In our ten years of experience teaching at GreenStar, we have seen many positive changes, as well as new issues of concern. Initially, our use of renewable energy was to reduce our contributions of acid rain, mercury, and nitrous oxide to the environment. Global warming had not been foreseen. Today, renewable energy is expected to not only save our global economy, but also to be the largest issue that will elect our next President! Local residents have become much more informed on solar and wind power, and Ithaca is now the solar capital of New York and one of the top locations in the world for renewable energy in terms of watts installed per capita. There are about 100 households in Tompkins County that use solar electricity, and local participation in the national Green Buildings Open House has grown from one (us) to almost 20 households. This also leads the nation. This year the tour is on Saturday, Oct. 4 (for more details, visit http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/tompkins/environment/greenbuildings/tour.htm).

Early adopters like us have already paid for our systems, and today state rebates pay for half of a system’s cost. A household-sized photovoltaic (PV) system and an SUV cost about the same. In 20 years, you will have spent $100,000 on the SUV and it will be worth nothing. The PVs will have provided a return on your investment of at least four percent, and they will still be worth about what you paid for them. What do you think it will be worth in 20 years to be making your own free electricity? Currently New York state rebates are given on a first-come basis, and you could still be the first on your block. However, don’t wait to be the last, as there will likely be no money by then. Don’t wait for the government, or new technology, to make solar available to the masses. Remember, there are two billion people wanting electricity, and supplies may get tight.

We run a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, washing machine, computers, TV/VCR, stereo, and compact fluorescent lights—all on electricity from the sun.  The average home in Ithaca uses 800 kilowatt hours a month.  We use only 80! If we had an electric bill, it would be less than $10/month. We heat with firewood (a renewable and solar resource). Our cookstove and water heater use propane. We even have a solar powered clothesline! A household rule is: “Only one light allowed on per person at a time, and it is up to that person to make the light follow them around the house.” We don’t feel we are missing out on any luxuries.

Our photovoltaic panels are non-polluting, reliable and long lasting. At today’s prices these panels produce electricity that is three times as expensive as grid supplied power (although competitive with nuclear power). People always ask us about the cost effectiveness of our solar system. Our response is: “When did we decide that the cheapest electricity is the best? What is the true cost of acid rain? Are you including global warming in the equation?  What is the cost effectiveness of a sport utility vehicle or an extravagant house?” Our solar system is not about cost effectiveness, it is about the value we place on the lives of our children’s children. Chief Seattle suggested we should look ahead seven generations as we make decisions that affect the environment.

We like to think that our home is helping to promote a more sustainable future. Our ecological footprint on this planet is satisfyingly small.


Steve and his wife Cindy will give their class, “Living with Solar and Wind Power in Ithaca: Lessons from an Energy-Efficient Lifestyle,” on Wednesday, Sept. 24, from 7-8:15 pm at GreenStar. The class is free, but registration is required. To register, please sign up the front desk or call 607.273.9392.

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