My year as a green-living beta tester

CNET News reporter Martin LaMonica has spent the past year in the multifamily competition Energy Smackdown to lower household energy use. He finds a little effort goes a long way.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
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With a competition called the Energy Smackdown, you might expect to walk away bruised and battered. But after a year of trying to "smack down" energy use in my home, I actually feel pretty good.

Almost a year ago, I signed my household up for the Energy Smackdown, a combination of a community-outreach program, contest, and cable TV show.

Teams from three neighboring Boston-area cities were formed and competed to lower their energy use. About 60 households measured their energy use every month, along with how many miles they drove, flew, and how much trash they generated.

There were one-day competitions between teams for low-carbon travel, lighting, and home energy efficiency. Events were filmed along the way, including home energy audits and a "locavore banquet" made from locally procured food. Teams win by lowering the group's overall carbon footprint after one year and on team event scores.

So how'd I do? Not too bad, considering I had already done quite a bit to lower my home's energy consumption before signing on. The numbers aren't complete, but it looks like we've cut our footprint in the range of 10 percent or 15 percent and that we're on the low end of the scale in terms of total footprint.

At first, I was reluctant to sign on since I thought I couldn't cut much more. But then I acquired a secret weapon: solar electric panels, which were installed last spring. Amazingly, our house has produced a bit more electricity than we consumed over the past year. That's right. Last month, for instance, I had a $3.35 electric bill--and that's after the $6.43 grid interconnection fee.

Working against our carbon count was air travel: two family flights to Europe and the Midwest threw our monthly numbers way out of whack.

Strip away those high-profile factors and I think our score improved because of a few simple, even boring, things--sealing the cracks around the attic staircase, connecting electronics to power strips and turning them off at night, and using our bicycles for short trips. In general, sealing drafts in your home--rattling windows and such--makes a huge difference.

Look, Ma, no kilowatt-hours! Martin LaMonica/CNET

Being something of an energy tech geek, my green-living beta test also involved some toys and science experiments. Before heading for work most days, I put a foldable solar panel connected to a backup battery on my deck. The juice I collect off-grid charges my cell phone, game machines, and rechargeable batteries.

Ready, set, go!
More impressive were the accomplishments of the different teams. Even eco-conscious families significantly cut their carbon footprint--some more than 60 percent. As of the halfway point in the contest, families on average reduced energy use by about 30 percent, according to Donald Kelley, the executive director of the BrainShift Foundation, which conceived of the Energy Smackdown.

The various team events were a lot of fun because, I suspect, they tap into that American competitive spirit. And the activities really did connect neighbors and build community.

Click on this image for a photo gallery, compiled last year, of assorted green home retrofits. Martin LaMonica/CNET

One Saturday morning, I joined in a sort of weatherization barn-raising at one team member's home. After measuring the air leakage with a blow-door test, about 10 of us ran around with caulk guns and insulating foam to try to make the building more airtight. The blow door--essentially just a removable door with a large fan--exaggerates the air leaks to help locate them.

During the lightbulb challenge, just a few small groups of people managed to replace 888 incandescent bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents. That's saving the equivalent of electricity to power 87 homes each year, or 650 homes over the life of the bulbs.

There's no financial incentive, but bragging rights clearly go a long way to motivating teams to strategize and compete.

In a transportation event, we biked over 20 miles, rather than carpool, to cover a course with the lowest pollution per person. Another time we consulted with a local chef on how to create a good-tasting banquet menu built around locally procured ingredients. (My wife's sorbet dessert, made from locally picked raspberries, got top prize.)

Big and small changes
So we had a lot of fun, but you might ask, are these green efforts just feel-good puffery that have no real impact? I'd argue that this sort of activity, as playful as it was at times, hits on something important.

For starters, I found that getting a reasonably accurate measure of energy usage is not as trivial as you might expect. You have to go to the trouble, more than once, of gathering and entering data--how many kilowatt-hours, miles driven, therms consumed, etc. There are many companies developing home energy-monitoring tools, which should give people a better grip on where their money is going and how they compare to others.

But right now, most of us have only a general idea of energy use. And yet, better awareness is a vital step to creating a more energy efficient society, say experts. When people realize that their second refrigerator is sucking up $50 a month in electricity to keep a few beers cool, they may decide to pull the plug and come up with an alternative. The same concept holds true in industry, where there is a lot of wasted energy.

Getting better energy data underpins a lot of green-tech business strategies. A trial of a smart-grid program, for example, in the Seattle-area last year found that people reduced their energy consumption by 10 percent when they knew how much appliances consumed and the cost of energy.

A blower door test, part of a home energy audit, measures how airtight a home with a fan and computer to measure air flow. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The second insight I've gained is, in my experience, greening your lifestyle just isn't all that hard. Besides, who doesn't want to lower their utility bills?

Using a power strip to completely shut off your electronics isn't exactly a supreme sacrifice but it can shave real money from your electricity bill every year. In the U.S., "vampire energy" from plugged-in appliances is about 5 percent of the energy consumed and costs consumers $3 billion each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Choosing energy-efficient appliances, which don't necessarily cost more, isn't dramatic behavioral change either yet helps spur demand for these goods. A programmable thermostat and low-flow shower heads are other no-brainers.

It's a bit more challenging to know how to improve your overall living space to be more energy efficient. But again, the resources are there--if you make the effort.

To participate in the Energy Smackdown, we were required to get a home energy audit. There are many technologies you could invest in--solar energy, "geothermal" ground-source heat pumps, wind turbines. But the first step is sealing your home's "envelope" from drafts and insulating. In other words, a caulk gun will pay off quicker than solar panels.

Perhaps the bigger point is that "green living" is really about the choices you make every day. Are you going to recycle that old cell phone or send it to an incinerator or landfill?

The grand finale for this year-long journey ends next month and, of course, I'm hoping for a victory for the hometown team. But if another city nudges us out for the win, my energy bills and I can say it's still been a worthwhile trip.

Note: This piece is part of a package for Earth Day 2009. On deck for Tuesday is "Technologies to watch."