Right, it’s Energy Day. As I am just now warming up after being off the power grid thanks to that one storm in November, I wasn’t up for cutting the power to my home completely. We decided to mitigate our use instead, to see how little electricity we can get by on without endangering the contents of our fridge and freezer. I can’t afford another full replacement of contents, and I know from experience that my fridge is only good for 4-6 hours without power.
Yes, here in the land of trees and wind, we get to experience days of off-grid life – When we see the wind picking up force, we gather up our candles, matches, rechargeable flashlights, and blankets. We pull food from the fridge and start to put together a warm meal, knowing that it may be some time before we get to open the fridge again or put something warm in our bellies. Our pantry is always stocked with food that can be eaten raw, but it’s always nice to enter the days of dark and cold with a bit of extra heat in your belly. We’re lucky to be on a gravity-fed community well, so we don’t have to rush to fill our tubs with water but there are many around here who do just that, or who store water in buckets and bottles. Scraping by through a power outage isn’t the same as a sustainable off-grid lifestyle, but these frequent experiences mean that residents of this island know a thing or two about what it’s like to lower our carbon footprints this way. We know what we miss and what we don’t, what feels like necessity and what is luxury when it comes to electrical use, at least on the short-term (up to one week, not usually longer than that).
This morning, we ate breakfast and assembled backpacks, coats, and shoes for the trip to A’s school bus stop (we made it in time this morning, hurrah!) by candlelight. When M and I got back, we opened up our hens’ coop a bit early, then hung outside to watch them emerge into the morning’s gray gloom – It wasn’t raining, there was a warmish wind blowing, and there was a lot more light outside than in. When there was enough sunlight coming through the solid cloud layer to see without candles, we went back in to play until M had to head to preschool. I had promised her enough electrical light to see her dolls, but otherwise we left many things unplugged. One CFL light on, no music from our stereo, the thermostat set to 60 to keep the furnace from clicking on, the fridge and freezer running, and our electrical vampire appliances sucking away to power their clocks (2 clock radios, microwave, oven). The hot water heater is on; we’re doing our best to stick with cold tap water, but this time of year the cold water is truly cold and I lose my grip on things I’m hand-washing if I don’t add enough hot water to keep my fingers from going numb (I learned this the hard way a while back while washing a knife). And the computer is on, always the computer. I turn off my monitor when I walk away from my desk, but my aged computer takes about 10 minutes to turn itself on and work out its startup kinks, and those 10 minutes add up quickly to take away my 2 hours of work time. I did unplug the stereo, coffee maker, tv/vcr/dvd, but that’s got to be less than a baby’s footprint in carbon savings.
Yes, I am an energy glutton. My house is designed to suck away at power so quietly, it’s easy easy easy to ignore the kilowatt-hours adding up. We had an energy audit about a month ago, through a local program working to keep our island’s usage below the power company’s allowed peak, in the hope of keeping a new substation from being built here. We switched out all of our eligible incandescent bulbs except for 3 for CFLs, we turned our thermostat’s default setting to 55 degrees, and I’m working on padded curtains for our windows. I wish I felt better about these changes, but I must say, the energy glutton in me is not at all happy. I despise the CFL bulbs. When I look at incandescent light, the words that come to mind are things like “cozy”, “warm”, “glow”, “home”. When I stand under the CFL lights in my home now, I think “anemic”, “cadaverous”, “sickly”, “deadening”, “depressing”. On the plus side, this has had the added carbon bonus of cutting my use of our light fixtures even more – I so hate the quality of the CFL light, I will squint at my books, my computer screen, my knitting, I will bump into furniture, it all seems a better price to pay than to turn the CFL bulbs on and get to work in light that makes me so very grouchy. I’m not going to switch back to incandescent bulbs, but I’m not quite ready to quit my complaining about these CFLS yet, either.
I’m not happy about the padded window curtain idea, either. There is not a lot of light here during the winter months, and I feel my body chemistry get all sludgy starting in late September every year. The idea of sitting in my house, working away under a CFL while all natural light is obliterated by thick, cushioning, insulating curtains fills me with more grouchiness. There’s no getting around the fact that our windows are cooling our house, making me reach to bump the thermostat and my carbon use up, but I need that natural light.
As much as I need the light, I need heat. Unfortunately, our house is heated by an electric forced air furnace and our registers are all in the ceiling of our single-story house. We don’t have a wood or propane stove, which are the most common alternate heat sources around here. So we use a lot of electricity to make heat that comes out and stays put, up above our head. The top of the bunk bed is the only truly warm spot in the house, so we dress in layers and wear thick socks 24/7 for 9 months out of the year. I discovered a lovely alternate source of heat during our last power outage, when it was 18 degrees F outside and only just above freezing inside. Small dogs make wonderful portable heaters, although I’m not sure what their carbon footprint is.
For a little while in the 90’s, I was a liveaboard on a 30′ wooden ketch named Libby. Libby could be hooked to shore power, but more often we read by oil lamps, cozy in the waves from our kerosene heater, food chilled in our ice box or on the decks before it was cooked on our gas stove/oven. Town was a bike ride away, so it was easy to buy groceries daily to balance our lack of refrigeration. We used plenty of petroleum products, but still far less than what would have come an apartment on land with the same small square footage. Living aboard Libby had its drawbacks – No running hot water, no toilet, shower, or bathtub, rust stains on all of my clothing – But nothing tipped the balance to make me grumpy; I loved living like that. I know first hand that there are ways to live with less electricity, let alone with greener electricity, we just need to get busy with the reverse-engineering to make our already-built land-based homes more habitable and less gluttonous without the grouch factor.
OK, enough grousing. I do have one new discovery from our Energy Day so far that makes me happy. We have a plastic dinosaur in our toy animal basket, and I recently found this ghostly T-Rex lying on the floor. I picked her up and put her on the cabinet at the end of our hallway, then promptly forgot about her. Instead of joining her friends in the basket, she’s been sitting on that cabinet for days, soaking up light. It turns out that she’s a glow-in-the-dark plastic dinosaur, just the sort of toy that gets my anti-plastic self all fired up. Last night when I stumbled along the hallway to let the dogs out, there was a happy glowing dino lighting my way. She’s not powerful enough to use as a torch, but she’s just right to keep me oriented in the otherwise dark house, enough so that I can now let the dogs out at midnight without banging into anything. This is a new one for me, but I’m very excited about this plastic toy, and grateful for my own lax housekeeping that led me to discover her undoubtedly toxic but very useful light. Here’s to more surprising solutions.
Less thrilling than my new night light, but still pretty nifty is my discovery that I can light my kitchen adequately with a short strand of LED fairy lights. I’m not a fan of the chilly quality of clear LED bulbs, even the ones labeled “warm white”, so I’ve covered each of the tiny bulbs with the husk of a tomatillo from my garden. Voila, a mellow light strong enough for simple kitchen work!
I also have a new fantasy. I’d love to see my community adopt a Year of the Rooster. For one year, I’d love to see us all unplug our alarm clocks and share neighborhood roosters instead. Imagine how lovely life would be if we all had permission to wake with the sun, then get to work. Our electrical use would go down, and I think our productivity would be at least what it is now; the shorter days of winter would be balanced by our wonderful summer evenings, and I’m sure we’d all be much happier. Anyone want to join me?