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I have watched the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfold with growing horror about what it means, not just to me, but to my three-year-old daughter. With any luck, Keelin will be inhabiting this planet for the next 70 to 80 years. What kind of planet are we leaving to her and other children her age? Are we proud of our stewardship of the planet that we depend upon for our survival?

Meg and I have always considered our own impact, however small, upon the world in which we live. But watching thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day has really caused me to stop and think much more seriously about how much oil we are responsible for using on a regular basis. Part of the reason that we even engage in offshore drilling is because the sources of easy-to-obtain oil are rapidly being depleted, and we are turning to methods of obtaining oil that are – as we can see now – more dangerous and pose a greater risk to the environment at large.

It will take years of massive, concentrated effort for us to make the necessary switch from an economy which is based in so many ways upon consumption of fossil fuels to a sustainable mix of greener energy sources. In the meantime, it is imperative that we all take steps to reduce our oil consumption footprint.

This sounds really earthy-crunchy, and the lengths to which each family can go will vary. But in thinking about how Meg, Keelin and I are going to reduce our fossil fuel footprint, I wanted to begin laying out a sketch of how millions of other families like ours can easily and cheaply take their own steps as well.

The basic criteria amount to a “low-hanging fruit” approach. There are steps that can be implemented without making large wholesale changes to the family lifestyle. There are steps you can take which are also relatively inexpensive or cost nothing; in some cases, it may require an initial investment that will pay for itself in the long run.

Electricity consumption

When we think of the impact of our electrical consumption, we often think of the coal that we burn which provides the plurality of our electric power. But our electricity can come from a variety of sources that vary based on what local and regional electrical generation facilities have available. For example, 35% of my electricity is from nuclear power, and 27% is from natural gas. 10% is from oil. Upon requests, your own power company can provide you with information disclosure literature which explains how much of your electricity is obtained from various sources.

Here in Massachusetts, there are two major electricity carriers that provide electric power, as well as the municipal power that is provided directly by a number of communities. For customers of National Grid or NStar, what many people don’t realize is that while you won’t have a choice about who you can use for the delivery of power to your home, you do have a choice about your electricity supplier. The supplier is the company that actually generates the power; National Grid/NStar is the company that delivers the power (although obviously they have generation capabilities as well).

I use a company called Easy Energy as my electricity supplier. Not only are they a couple bucks cheaper to use per month, but they are directly involved with efforts to develop renewable energy resources in New England. If you have a choice as to your energy supplier, look into finding a supplier that uses renewable gneeration methods.

I’m not going into the usual disclaimers about how to reduce electrical consumption, because those are already well-documented. But one thing that we’ve done is that we’ve gone out and purchased a clothes drying rack for things like jeans and sweaters, which can take a long time to dry in your electric/gas dryer. Dryers use a lot of electricity, so reducing the time it takes to dry a load by letting heavy clothes air dry can save money and reduce energy consumption.

Large appliances are huge energy hogs, but replacing them with Energy Star compliant appliances can greatly reduce your monthly energy bill. In some cases, you can even grab a tax credit on the purchase of new appliances. If you’re in the market for a new fridge or dishwasher, check it out.

Reducing the amount of “stuff” you use

Here’s a big one: stop buying bottled water. Period. It can cost 10,000% more than an equivalent amount of tap water. Bottled water is in many cases held to less stringent purity standards than tap water. One estimate holds that 90% of the plastic bottles used for bottled water end up in landfills where they take thousands of years to decompose. And the amount of oil used to manufacture the bottle and transport it to the store or vending machine where you purchase it is equal to approximately 40% of the volume of the water in each bottle.

We’ve bought aluminum bottles that can cost anywhere from $10-25 depending on size and quality. We fill those with tap water we’ve filtered with a tap water filtering system that can be purchased for about $40-50. New filter cartridges run about $15-20 each, but can filter a couple hundred gallons before being replaced, which when you break it down is a huge savings over buying bottled water at $1.50-2 per 20 oz. bottle.

Reducing the amount of plastics is key. Look for products which use more paper packaging that can be easily recycled, and less plastic packaging which has a far greater fossil fuel footprint to manufacture. And always recycle as much of your plastics as you possibly can.

We’re also enrolling in a CSA program for the summer. Farmer Dave’s sells a small share of vegetables for $300, plus admin and delivery costs of $100, which works out to about $20 a week for fresh, locally-grown vegetables from mid-June until late October. That’s cheaper than a comparable amount of vegetables bought at the grocery store, and they’re grown about 15 miles away, which obviously takes far less oil to transport than the South American-grown produce prominently featured at many stores in North America.

Transportation

This one’s much tougher. The reality is that many families don’t really have a choice about how they get from place to place. Meg, Keelin and I are fortunate to live in a condo where we have a Walk Score of 85. We take advantage of that as much as possible, walking to local restaurants, the public library, and convenience stores.  We have no choice about using our cars to get to Keelin’s school and to our jobs, but I’m lucky to have a job which occasionally allows me to telecommute rather than go all the way into the office. When we want to go to Boston, the commuter rail station is a 5-minute walk. The MBTA has a lot of work still to do to make Boston as commuter-friendly as it can (chief among them, the realization of the long-delayed North-South rail link which will allow people to easily commute between the North and South Shores without unwieldy transfers which are necessary now).

Transportation is one of those things that varies so much based on a family’s needs and where a family happens to live that it’s hard to make specific recommendations. But if nothing else, it is worth an hour or two of your time to sit down with a pad and pen and brainstorm ways to reduce your transportation costs and your fossil fuel footprint.

I drive a 2001 Corolla that will probably need to be replaced within 12-18 months. We have already decided that our next vehicle is going to be a hybrid or some similar greener vehicle. They are still more expensive than gas-only cars, but we’ve decided that if we’re serious about reducing our fossil fuel footprint, we may have to incur more expense in the short term to be a small part of the huge change America needs to implement to move away from oil.

These are some of the changes we’re implementing and thinking about implementing. Obviously, we welcome any suggestions for further reducing our family’s footprint. Please feel free to comment, or shoot me a tweet.

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Written by Devin Rambo

May 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Energy

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