Shortly after Beth and I moved into our new home in Clarkston, we started working on cultivating our garden. In a preliminary move which entertained the neighbors no end, we rented a trip of goats – twenty of the creatures, to be precise – which, accompanied by a Great Pyrenee to guard them, spent three days and two nights in our yard eating ivy. It was both fun and also productive experience, and prepared the ground for the fruit trees and vegetables which we are in the process of planting.
The stage set for producing some of our own food, an ongoing project, we moved on to the next item on the list. “Wouldn’t it be great”, we thought, “if we could invest today in systems that would dramatically reduce, maybe even eliminate, our utility bills?” Our thinking was certainly colored by a sustainability lens – replacing our consumption of city power and water with the sunlight and rain that falls on our roof – but the initial and primary driver was economic.
Well it turns out that what we are looking to do is not just possible, but as we had hoped, is economically viable. Here’s where we are and what we have learned so far.
House Electricity and Solar Panels
Alternative energy was the most obvious and most immediate target, and by happy coincidence I was introduced to the wonderful people of Creative Solar. They very quickly gave us a quote, and are now designing a 10 kW system for approval and installation in the next couple of months. The conservative math accompanying the proposal suggests a 10-year payback. We will add additional investments around the edge, for example putting in LED lights (did you know that if you live in a typical home with traditional bulbs, lighting is around 50% of your electricity bill, and that LED bulbs reduce this by 80%+?), insulating attic and basement (our energy auditor told us this reduces a typical base load (roughly the 50% that is not your lights) by 30%+), and replacing an old and horribly inefficient A/C unit. We had also planned to replace our gas systems (hot water and home heating) with electricity and plug into our roof, but our advisors have said they are not so sure; and we are planning to put in batteries to buffer and provide overnight power down the road, but first want to size our usage more accurately.
So this is going to happen, and the big first step will happen soon, but there is a lot of exploration and learning as we move into the project. And in addition to making an investment in our home that has an attractive payback, we are also feeling good about a system that, when measured against traditional power consumption, has CO2 offset that is the equivalent of planting 7 trees per year for the rest of our lives.
As we have been exploring this, I have learned a ton about sound investments being made in this technology by thoughtful and financially astute people. But I have also bumped into adverse incentives and arbitrary barriers to moving forward with this technology, and as I drive around the city, I look at all those commercial rooftops which should be covered with solar panels, not just for environmental reasons, but because it makes economic sense. But it won’t happen so long as businesses and individuals are stuck in old business models and don’t do the math and explore ways to make these investments work to their economic advantage.
Buying an Electric Car
My old Honda Pilot died late last year and I was struggling with how to replace it. When we lived in Grant Park, I had wanted to live without a car, but even in close proximity to the city center I discovered that the heat and humidity of Atlanta made walking downtown impractical, and the fragmented bus and train system mean public transport is less reliable and timely than I want. And as for Uber and Lift: certainly they have advantages over owning a car, but they are far from cheap, and they have real environmental footprints. I was uncertain about the hybrids, which felt neither fish nor foul, and was most tempted by the electric cars on the market. But I looked long and hard and neither the Volt nor the Leaf had the range to meet a primary planning objective, reliably driving to Macon and back, which I need to do fairly regularly.
But then I discovered I’d missed the launch of the Tesla 3.
I have long been an admirer of Elon Musk, who I think of as one of the most remarkable human beings of our lifetime. He has been steadily bringing the Tesla down market over the last several years, and in March 2016 came out with his first mass market car. I watched the launch video, read about the vehicle, and realized I have found my dream car. It costs $35,000, in the range of an ordinary mid-sized car…and it has incredible performance and apparently low maintenance costs. It also not only has the range to meet my Macon planning requirement, but there is a large and growing network of charging stations that mean it can take me anywhere…and can fully recharge in 40 minutes! But mostly I can charge it at home from our solar panels, where no grid electricity generation is required. It is not just the most environmentally sound, but also the most financially sound proposition for a new vehicle I can find. The only downside is the eighteen month waiting list. I’m excited about my new car for the first time since I was a teenager!
Recapturing Rainwater and Reusing Gray Water
Our desire to recapture rainwater was originally inspired by wanting to use the water to irrigate our fruit and vegetable garden, but once we started thinking and talking about it, our ambitions grew. Our annual water utility bill is around $1,000; certainly it would be great to cap it and not use additional city water for our gardening, but wouldn’t it be nice to reduce it, maybe even substantially eliminate it?
Our initial inquiries and conversations suggested the viability of both capturing rainwater and using it in the home, and also of capturing our gray water (laundry, shower, etc.) and using in the garden.
We were excited.
But whereas there is a lot of expertise and investment in solar power, we found it much harder to get connected to and find practical solutions provided by folk with relevant experience. But after digging around and talking to friends, we started to find some existing systems and talk to people who knew what they were doing. Slowly we started to find out more. We are still at a relatively early stage, but it is looking like we should be able to design a system that will capture and hold rainwater falling on our roof, and separately capture the gray water we produce, and that this should be sufficient to fully provide for all of our domestic water use. It sounds like there is more we can do, too, but it’s early days.
And impressively, initial thinking about numbers suggests, with the most modest increase in utility rates, that the entire project would have a payback in the range of 10-15 years (and this is prior to assuming growth in consumption and valuing the security of redundancy/independence; also there are easily accessible elements which have substantially shorter payback). One of the big questions right now is the nature of the municipal permission required, but the existence of a number of residential systems (for example these projects shown on the EcoVie website, and in particular this full replacement system in Grant Park (ironically where Beth and I lived for a year!)) give me some confidence that if we have a well thought out and architected plan, permission can be obtained.
With just a couple of month of exploration, Beth and I have learned that recycled water and solar power are not environmental gimmicks or luxuries, but rather that they are projects with economics that work. They are systems with low maintenance and long life and, if one is able to make the upfront investment (we are fortunate, for sure, in being able to do this), they reduce and potentially eliminate utility costs and have a payback which, if you are planning to stay in your house for a long time, is quite sensible. We are still learning, and as we uncover more of the joys of this work and deal with bumps along the way, I’ll let you know!