By now you’ve almost certainly seen signs telling you to turn the lights off when you leave a room, or advertisements for energy efficient household appliances. It's clear that you'll benefit from taking these steps by paying a lower energy bill, but why is saving energy such an important step to slowing down climate change?
The main connection is pretty simple.
Our energy comes from a variety of sources, including renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, but most of our energy comes from power plants.
Power plants burn coal and other fossil fuels to generate energy, and the combustion process releases toxic pollution and greenhouse gases like CO2 into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the processes used to extract fossil fuels like petroleum and coal, such as fracking, are invasive and leave lasting negative impacts on the Earth.
According to EnergySage, the U.S. domestic sector produced approximately 19% of national GHG emissions in 2016. Of that, 69% of residential emissions were the result of electricity use, with direct fossil fuel combustion for home heating making up the other 32%.
Fossil fuels are an extractive source of energy, meaning they’re extracted from the Earth, burned, and then can’t be used again. Renewable energy is much more sustainable alternative because it’s sourced by harnessing power from natural resources that already exist, and it’s not inherently extractive.
However, renewable power sources are not perfect either, and their implementation has an impact on ecosystems as well.
For instance, there have been complaints by many groups about solar farms and wind farm developments on large swaths of land, including indigenous people to whom that land is sacred and/or essential to their livelihoods, and other environmentalists who worry about the harm to local wildlife and ecosystems. One recent example of this conflict occurred in the Owens Valley, an area in central California.
Hydroelectric power coming from dams has been similarly problematic because damming a river significantly impacts the ecosystem of the river, and affects the life of anyone who relies on that river downstream or upstream of the dam. Furthermore, solar panels and wind power are currently not consistently reliable to be our single source of energy, because without a powerful energy storage system, they can only provide energy when there is enough sun or wind. While technologies are improving rapidly, it's still not feasible for us to be 100% reliant on renewable energies at this point.
While renewable energy provide a much more sustainable alternative, the best solution is to reduce the amount of energy we consume, regardless of where it’s from.
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your energy footprint in your household:
- Let’s start basic: use your electronic appliances less! For instance, instead of always running your dryer, line-dry your laundry; this will also help your clothes last longer and smell fresh.
- If you’re not using it, turn it off! This goes for everything from lights to fans to essential oil diffusers. Make a habit of looking over your shoulder when you leave a room and see if you’ve left anything on that’s using power.
- Beyond just turning electronics off, try to keep them unplugged when not in use, especially if you’re leaving the room for longer amounts of time. Up to 75% of energy used in households is used by electronics that are turned off, known as “phantom energy.” Fix this by unplugging electronics when they’re not in use, or buy a “smart” power strip only turns on during certain times or when you’re using it.
- Instead of always blasting your AC or heater, try to regulate your own body temperature first. Open or close windows, open or close blinds, wear layers, and drink cold water or hot drinks to regulate your own temperature instead of using your thermostat. If you need to use the AC or heating, try keeping the thermostat as close to the outside temperature as possible.
- Switch the lightbulbs in your house from traditional (incandescent) to CFL or LED. It’s an easy one-time swap, and they use 25-80% less electricity and last 25x longer.
- If you’re in the market for new household appliances, purchase energy-efficient ones, especially larger items like laundry machines and refrigerators. These machines are designed to use less electricity (and in many cases, water as well). Look for appliances with an ENERGY STAR label, and check out their website for a ton of useful tips about saving energy in your house!
- Your water heater uses a ton of power to stay hot, so unload the stress off your water heater by taking shorter and slightly colder showers. There’s no need to turn showering into an ice bath, but opting for warm instead of super hot can make a difference. The same goes for washing laundry-- using the cold setting uses much less energy and keeps your clothes looking brighter. You can also turn the temperature down on your water heater so it doesn’t waste energy by heating the water to an unnecessarily hot temperature.
- Finally, insulate! This one requires a bit more planning and resources, but it has one of the largest impacts. Tons of energy gets wasted by houses that are improperly insulated-- about 10-25% of your heating bill! Specifications of how much and what type of insulation vary by house and location, but you can read more details about it from the US Department of Energy here.