It’s not easy being greener…

Disclaimer: This is not a “more environmentally sound than you” post. We’re not. We don’t own a hybrid (largely because we drive as little as possible, Honda Civics already get good gas mileage, and we can’t see the validity of junking four-year-old and eight-year-old “like new” cars). We don’t go to extremes in general–for example, we won’t use dimmable CFLs because they don’t work worth a damn if you have either hearing or eyesight left.
On the other hand, we are Nature Conservancy members, we’re native Californians (look at the record for California’s energy consumption per capita, and changes in that energy consumption in recent years–the state’s doing pretty well), and we do believe in doing the right thing if it makes any sense at all.
This is about how your ingrained habits can get in the way of “easy fixes.”


We used to live in Mountain View. Very few people there have AC; we were no exceptions. On the rare occasions (once or twice a year, typically) when it got into the 90s for three days running, we’d just get hot in the afternoon and cope with it (and, of course, open the windows and run fans in the cooler mornings and evenings).
We’d thought about adding solar (photovoltaic), but we knew we were moving.
We moved to Livermore–where AC is fairly standard, since it gets into the 90s and low 100s a lot more frequently. (As I write this, it’s 98.8F on one outside gauge, 101F on the other–and 79 inside, since we have pretty good insulation.) And we awaited our first utility bills with some nervousness–it’s a much bigger house (2,114 square feet instead of 1,320), we haven’t replaced as many lights with CFL yet (some fixture oddities to be resolved in the future), and who knew what AC would use?
We’d already planned to add photovoltaic here–and found that the companies want to see a few months’ utility bills so they can suggest system size and project possible return on investment.



  • We’ve long been in the habit of turning off lights when we leave rooms–maybe the way we grew up, maybe other reasons.
  • We’ve never used TV for companionship or had other high-consumption habits, we’ve never left chargers sitting in sockets (we don’t own that many things that require charging)…
  • Like our old house, the new one has double-pane windows and patio doors throughout…and excellent insulation. The new one also has tile floors.
  • The new house had an Energy Star refrigerator (which we liked better than the Energy Star refrigerator we already owned) and an Energy Star water heater. We’d already gone to a front-loading washer (Energy Star–aren’t all of them?) and, although the dryer’s older, a front-loader does a lot of the drying up front.
  • We were already planning to replace the 20-year-old/inefficient furnace and 40-year-old/inefficient AC with a new HVAC system, which turned out to be smaller units and very high efficiency (16 SEER AC, 94.5AFUE furnace)–although that replacement just happened last week, so we don’t know the effects.
  • I’m aware of parasitic energy. My PC equipment–other than the modem and router–is on a power strip that I switch off when I’m not using it, which should result in zero parasitic energy. (In any case, both of our computers are fairly ordinary notebooks, which don’t use a whole lot of power to begin with.) When/if I get around to buying a Kill-a-Watt meter, I’ll test the parasitic usage of the TV, DVD player and (for now) VCR; if it’s more than 10 watts, I’ll start flipping that power strip switch also. (But, of course, we’ll be replacing the old CRT-based TV…with, most likely, an LED-lit LCD, using much less power even with a larger screen.)

None of this is “let’s see how little energy we can use”; none has any negative impact on our lives (turning off lightswitches is a habit, not a nuisance–and we have LED nightlights in enough places to avoid problems, at 0.3 watts per light).
Oh, we also set AC at 80F (78-79F if we have guests) and heat at 68-70F, but that’s because neither of us likes huge differentials between the inside and outside–we’re comfortable at those temperatures.
So we got the first month’s utility bill, for a month that had three or four 100+ days. Electricity use: Around 440kWH. Total bill: Less than I’d expected, by quite a bit. Hmm.
We started calling solar companies. By the time any of them came out, there was another half-month experience (and yes, I can read an electric meter: I’m not a DIYer, but I’m not a complete idiot), and it looked like we’d have to try real hard to exceed 450kWH for the month. So I told companies, “Assume 450 to 500 kWH/month.” The estimators looked at the size of our house and basically challenged those figures as being too low. Eventually, though, particularly after we had a second bill (430kWH, I believe), they said “OK”–but that made bids difficult, particularly since most companies don’t want to install anything under 2.6kW generating capacity, and the best ROI is based on replacing 60% to 70% of your energy usage and using time-of-use monitoring.
The guy representing the company we’re finally using was honest: He said our power usage was too low to expect any major payback from solar. He was also willing to install a smaller system (he started out at 2.25KW, we boosted it to 2.45). We assured him that we weren’t looking for hot financial gains–we really wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and not feel guilty if we did use a little more power. (Meanwhile, to be sure, we were increasing our HVAC efficiently considerably–and selecting a more reflective new roof.)

One question was, I’m afraid, a little too true to life. We have an ideal roof for solar–facing due south, with no shade trees–but it’s a hip roof that’s almost totally invisible from the street. At least one estimator asked whether we’d rather do the installation on our front roof–which wouldn’t generate as much power, but would let all the neighbors know we had a solar installation. He said this question came from experience… We laughed and said, No, we’ll use the ideal roof, not the publicity gimmick.

Oh, we just got our third month’s utility bill, for a month with quite a bit of hot weather. 390kWH. Before installing the new HVAC…


If you already have reasonable habits, if you’re not casually wasting energy anyway, it’s not easy being greener.
Yes, we’ll be cutting PG&E’s peak load (since peak solar generation, at least in the summer, is also peak power usage), which also means reducing the need (or desire) for “peaker” plants, usually the nastiest ecologically–in California, at least, where coal is extremely unlikely–and most expensive to run. Yes, we should be reducing our carbon footprint. (By the way, we’re using thin-film panels, made in the U.S. rather than China and with extremely good recyclability.)
No, we don’t expect that the system will pay for itself over the usual 18-year lifespan. It’s quite possible that we’ll wind up giving electricity to PG&E over the course of each year; that’s OK, within limits. We’d built the cost of the installation into our plans when buying the house; we’re comfortable with the outcome. And dollar savings was never the basis for going solar…which, as it turns out, is just as well.

7 Responses to “It’s not easy being greener…”

  1. winnebago says:

    Isn’t the electric company obligated to purchase any excess electricity you may produce in California?

  2. Yes and no.
    Yes, once you have an inverter attached to the utility, you get a “two-way meter”–it can spin either way, decreasing counts if you’re generating more than you’re using.
    And if you use time-of-use pricing, PG&E “buys” at time of use, which means you’re getting a VERY good rate for excess midafternoon power. (But you’re also charged for power you use at time-of-use rates.)
    But…PG&E is only obliged to buy up to the amount you owe over the course of a year, not including the $7 monthly meter fee. In other words, PG&E will never write you a check for excess electricity–and it won’t roll over from one year to the next. If you’ve generated more than you use, over the course of a year, it’s a gift to the utility. (Some folks, who really dislike PG&E, apparently plan to waste energy at the end of the year if they know they’re running over. Personally, I don’t see the point.)
    If that situation changes in the future, I’d guess a lot of people will add panels to their existing photovoltaic installations (up to the limits of their inverters, their connection circuit breakers, or their budgets). I’d also guess the utilities would be lobbying heavily against such a requirement unless it also eased off the rates at which they pay, and they would have a somewhat reasonable argument (e.g., household photovoltaic isn’t a reliable source, and there are grid-maintenance issues).

  3. Russ Finley says:

    Nice article. My one quibble is making light of the fact that your panels are not visible. We can’t find solutions if we continue to self-deceive ourselves.
    We are social primates. All social primates compete for higher positions in status hierarchies. Status does not exist unless it can be displayed. High status causes others to emulate you.
    I know you think you don’t compete for status, but you do, in fact most of our waking hours are spent competing for status, we just are not consciously aware of it, or would rather not see ourselves in that light. I have yet to meet anyone who admits to seeking status. Think about it.
    By making environmental benignity a status symbol, humanity just might have a chance.

  4. I don’t agree that, at least for some of us, “most of our waking hours are spent competing for status”–particularly not those of us who are semi-retired and whose 15 minutes of fame are long behind us.
    If we had chosen to put the panels on a more visible section of the roof, where they would perform less efficiently, we would be seeking status in preference to effectiveness. We thought (and think) that was silly and counterproductive.
    I’ve certainly met people who admit to seeking status. And I certainly admit to having done it at times in the past–and at times now. But it’s not my overriding concern, and matters less now than it did, say, 20 years ago.

  5. Russ Finley says:

    I agree with your decision to put them where they will be more efficient, I was just trying to make the point about the importance of recognizing status seeking urges and how the instinct might be channeled into more productive directions.
    I am also semi-retired with my 15 minutes of fame behind me. And I would agree that our status seeking urges temper as we age, as do our sexual urges. Our brains finally start to consistently win out over our penises.
    Of course you don’t seek status, nobody I have ever talked to does.
    You consume your free time writing articles about your energy use, comb your hair, wash your car, and maintain your lawn because …
    What percentage of our waking lifetimes has been spent putting food in our bellies, and staying warm and dry? All the rest was spent seeking opioid releases via subconscious status seeking. Jobs are primarily to pay off debts on bigger than needed for survival housing and fancier than needed for travel, cars, clothes, and any other way we can think of to enhance our status. That behavior, is consuming the planet.
    In our hunter gatherer history, high status offspring have historically been more successful at propagating genes into the future, which is why status seeking has been selected for in all social primates.
    All healthy, normal people status seek.

  6. jessamyn says:

    This has been my experience with looking at solar for my life in Vermont. I use so little energy — 120kWH a month — that I should probably just purchase a bicycle with a generator on it and type as I pedal. Thanks for this, it was interesting.

  7. walt says:

    Jessamyn: For you, it’s worse in a couple of respects, I suspect–you’re farther north, so won’t generate as much energy for a given set of panels (and, just at a guess, you don’t get nearly as many clear days as we do). And, to be sure, if your utility uses tiered pricing, you’re almost certainly never outside the cheapest tier.