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Horsing Around for the Home Planet

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on August 05, 2007

A friend who is an aficionado of classical music described rock and roll as “a man who got on his horse and rode off in all directions." In my version of the saying, about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels, I think we all need to get on our horses and ride off in all directions.

Gov. Schwartzenegger has pushed a number of initiatives in California and all of them are good. His plan to create a “hydrogen highway” up and down the state, to provide hydrogen fuel for cars running on fuel cells is a great idea, but won’t likely pay off in the near term. Hydrogen is an energy carrier and not an energy source, so what you do with that energy determines whether it will improve or hurt the environment. And fuel cells still depend on expensive metals such as gold, platinum, or palladium as a catalyst. When fuel cell technology becomes less expensive, then the hydrogen highway will make more sense. In the meantime we can create more energy using renewable sources such as solar and wind.

The Governor's California Solar Initiative (CSI), however, is an idea whose time has come— with an immediate pay off for the environment and for California’s bank accounts. The CSI puts nearly $3 billion over 11 years into the state’s efforts to promote solar energy. The initiative requires that homes meet certain energy efficiency standards before builders and homeowners get a rebate from the state for solar electric installations. In the home performance community, we call this “insulating before insolating.”

An efficient home will use much less energy — requiring a much smaller and less expensive photovoltaic (PV) system — than a typical home to meet at least 50% of its electricity needs. However, energy efficiency is un-sexy compared to the very sexy solar technology found on the roofs of celebrities, green architects, and first-adopters of technology. PV panels get even more attractive when they make the homeowner’s PG&E meter go backwards, which is what happens when there is power going to the grid and not from the grid. Making energy efficiency more alluring will go a long way towards greening the home front in the Golden State.

Home Energy magazine has a couple of horses, going in different directions of course, in this race to save the planet. Along with the usual six bimonthly issues this year, we have published a couple of special issues. The first one, which came out in March, covers the solar power/energy efficiency nexus. The second issue, which came out in May, tackles the water/energy connection. Most homeowners know that water heating can contribute up to 20% of the typical home's energy uses. But did you know that California uses about 10% of the state’s total energy to move and heat water?

To solve our problems here in California, and to help save the planet, I think we need a variety of approaches. When we talk about solutions to global warming and the state’s energy needs, “either/or” solutions don't go nearly far enough. We need solutions that include “both/and.”

Up next from Home Energy is a special issue exploring climate solutions (due out in January, 2008).

What approaches are working for you?

Please comment below.

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