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For most of us, consuming energy begins the moment we wake up. We turn on our lights, take a hot shower, brew our coffee, and plug in our phones to charge before leaving. While we need many of these energy-fueled routines to go about our lives, our energy consumption can add up very quickly—literally. The average American home spends about $2,024 in energy expenses a year with space and water heating, cooling, and lighting being the highest energy gobblers. And your utility bills aren’t the only ones suffering.
Powering a single American household creates about 21,400 pounds of carbon dioxide; this is equal to twice the amount of emissions as the average car in one year! Carbon dioxide is just one of the byproducts of our energy consumption. From mercury and sulfur dioxide to water contaminants and solid hazardous waste, like coal ash, the results of power plants energizing our homes is also weakening our environment.
Where Energy Actually Comes From (And Why We Could Run Out)
To power our secondary energy needs, from transportation to electricity, we need to tap into primary energy sources such as petroleum, natural gases, and coal. However, these three major fossil fuels—which have dominated more than 80% of the country’s energy production for over a century—are nonrenewable, or finite, in supply. At this rate of consumption, we not only risk burning through our primary energy sources, but are also rapidly increasing the rate at which pollutant byproducts are entering our air.
“Fossil fuel fired power plants are the second largest source of climate change pollution in the United States,” says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist and director at the Natural Resource Defense Council Center for Energy Efficiency Standards. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country’s total fossil fuel production is forecasted to reach its highest levels ever through 2018 and 2019.
These numbers may seem daunting, but according to Horowitz, the solution may be rather simple: “The more energy efficient we are, the less electricity we use, the less pollution we create, and the lower energy bills we will have.”
Clearing the Way to Cleaner Energy
Switching to renewable energy, like solar power, is one of the biggest ways we can help keep the environment cleaner. And while we may still have a ways to go—in 2016, renewable energy sources only accounted for 10% of total energy consumption in the U.S—recent studies have shown that our country’s cravings for cleaner energy are on the rise. Thanks to both state and federal government mandates, you can expect to be seeing more renewable energy through 2040 (and hopefully, beyond!).
Compared to fossil fuels, these primary energy sources—namely water, wind, and the sun—are not only self-replenishing but do not directly emit any greenhouse gases when used. Plus, clean energy isn’t just good for the earth, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the energy efficiency sector (like, weatherizing homes), also helps keep 2.2 million Americans employed.
Of course, renewable energy isn’t the only way we can invest in a brighter and better future. There are dozens of simple ways you can help save energy in your own home. And if you’re worried about pricey home upgrades, Horowitz reminds us, “You don’t need to go out right away and buy a Prius or a new energy-efficient air conditioner. One way to start conserving energy is to go out and buy a 6-pack of LED light bulbs.”
Small Changes, Big Impacts
Consider the bulb: there are around 40 to 50 light bulbs in the typical American home. If every home switched over to LED bulbs instead of using less efficient incandescent or halogen bulbs, we could cut our nation’s electric bill by $10 billion a year, Horowitz explains. That amount of electricity saved—enough to power all the homes in Texas for a whole year—would also be equivalent to taking out 30 large coal burning plants.
“An energy-saving LED can give a off the same great light as a 60 watt incandescent using only one-sixth of the power. And one $3 LED bulb can save you anywhere from $50 to $100 in energy costs over its lifetime.”
Other simple ways to cut energy waste (and help trim your utility bill!) include turning off electronics when you're not using them or plugging several gadgets into a powerstrip. Leaving your desktop computer on all day can cost you an extra $75 a year alone. A programmable thermostat, that powers down when you're not home, can also help save you up to $150 a year on energy costs. Even something as small as checking the brightness levels on your television can help. "Making sure your TV's energy saving feature, the automatic brightness control, is enabled as this can help cut energy use by up to 50%, depending on your TV and overall room brightness," says Horowitz.
If you're looking to upgrade to more energy-efficient appliances or heating and cooling systems, consider getting a home energy audit first. “Ideally, the first step to a more efficient home is getting an energy audit," says Yury Polonsky, Vice President at New York State’s Energy Audits. The organization has helped provide over 200,000 residents across New York and New Jersey with subsidized home energy audits saving homeowners up to 30% in their energy costs. "Before you end up spending money on any upgrades, an energy audit will help you find out where air and heat are escaping.” Then, when you do shop for upgrades, be sure to look for the blue and white Energy Star label to ensure that you are buying one of the more efficient models on the market.
And while initial purchases, like an Energy Star certified washing machine (which use about 45% less water than regular machines!), may seem hefty up front, remember that these investments will pay off in the long run, both on your energy bills and on the environment. "Energy efficiency is actually the cheapest way to fight climate change," says Horowitz. "There really is no sacrifice! Newer appliances will work better, save you money, and save energy. It helps all of us make a difference."
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