Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Energy Reform: There's a Cost to Save

By Sandy Belknap

Last week, more than 100 leaders from around the globe came together at the 64th United Nations General Assembly in New York to discuss the hot topic (pardon the pun!) of Climate Change.
Interestingly, the discussions around climate change are more often about money than actual environmental issues.

According to a September 21, 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal that appeared just prior to the UN Climate Change session, “Poor nations say that if rich nations want them to stop burning coal or cutting down forests, they should be willing to pay.”

That statement made me stop to take pause and realize that this same money connection is an issue on a local and individual level, as well. We know that we need to take immediate actions to help to save our environment, but how much are we actually willing to pay?

Hybrid cars reduce our gasoline usage. Updating our homes to be more energy efficient (new HVAC, windows, insulation, etc.) keeps us more comfortable and reduces energy consumption dramatically. Even something as simple as replacing standard light bulbs with energy efficient bulbs can make a difference and make us feel a little less guilty if we forget to shut off a light. These kinds of changes in our lives sound like a no-brainer.

So, why aren’t more people driving hybrid cars, updating their homes’ energy effectiveness or replacing their light bulbs?

It’s all about the money. When it comes to climate control, there is almost always cost to save. 

I’ve been fortunate over the past several years. I’ve had the resources to make some changes in my own life to reduce my energy use.

Two years ago I traded in my 1998 car toward the purchase of a 2007 hybrid sedan. (With the exception of a smaller trunk, I love it!) My gas mileage has averaged between 38-44 mpg since I drove the car off the lot. But, my hybrid car cost a few thousand dollars more than the same sedan model without the hybrid technology. This is the reason why few of my friends have bought hybrid vehicles as they make new car buying decisions.

I’ve also been able to update the HVAC system in my 75+ year old New England home. Combined with replacing all of the original drafty windows, I saw my yearly oil use for heat be reduced by half. Before these updates, it was nothing to literally burn thru over 1000 gallons of oil during a snowy NH winter. My home now consumes just over 400 gallons annually. It is such a big savings that I no longer qualify for pre-paid special deals from my local oil company (they require a 500 gallon minimum purchase.)

Oh yes, and I’ve replaced all but one bulb in my house with new energy saving bulbs over the past 18 months. Public Service of NH sent a lighting catalogue last year to its customers and offered some great pricing on energy efficient lighting. But while I’ve been reducing overall energy use, the monthly utility bill has remained the same or gone up due to rate increases.

I used these three personal examples because there is a trend that we are seeing, as individuals, that relates back to the global concern about the cost to save the environment. The actual money savings from implementing energy related change/improvements often takes years to recoup from the original investment.

I think that is why Energy Reform is so critical in this country right now. But it’s going to be a big task. It is easy for our political leaders to blurt out goals for the next decade or two with regard to the reduction of fuel emissions. The big question is how can any collective goal be achieved if individuals aren’t willing to make an up front payment and sacrifices to drive change?

I personally feel good about the changes that I’ve made in my own life to reduce my own personal and household energy use (though I still long for a bigger trunk in my car!). But I get frustrated that businesses that are most tied to energy consumption don’t seem to want support my changes (higher priced cars, penalties for lower oil use and rising utility rates.)

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. I think that the topic of Climate Change and Energy Reform is going to be a long debate (one that we don’t have a lot of time for.) I just hope that it doesn’t become as nasty and drag on like the discussion about Healthcare Reform.

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